11 January 2018

Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

I was drawn to this book for no logical reason (as I am to most things). Mostly, I just loved the title. What a powerful one word. Also Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz are starring in the upcoming adaptation so you know that's going to be good. I bought it as soon as I saw the movie on the TIFF film schedule and realized it was based on a book.

The book is about Orthodox Jewish lesbians named Esti and Ronit. They grew up together and Ronit's dad was the head rabbi of the entire Jewish community. The community is extremely strict about their religion, homosexuality is definitely frowned upon, and years before Disobedience begins Ronit leaves this community to go to school in New York and never returns. Leaving the community is a big deal for a rabbi's daughter. When Disobedience begins, Ronit's father has passed away and she returns back to the community for her father's funeral. She learns her ex-lover Esti has married her cousin Dovid, who is set to replace her father as the head rabbi.


While Esti and Ronit's complicated relationship is a major theme of the book, the story is actually about Ronit's complicated relationship with her religion (her father, the community, and Esti all just being minor pieces of that). I did not have a religious upbringing. My dad's family Jewish, but we only sometimes practiced that. We grew up with the type of Judaism where we SOMETIMES got together to eat potato latkas and light candles, NOTHING like the Judaism Alderman describes in Disobedience.  I do know a handful of strictly religious people, and I never really understood it. It seemed like one big diet that you had to abide by always. But I have always been jealous of the tight communities religion provides for you, sort of like sports, both of which I was never a part of. This quote, from Ronit when she decides to stay in New York rather than return to her Jewish community after school, sort of speaks to the way I've always pictured strict religions:

I remember the feeling of putting down the deposit on that cramped little bedroom and moving my things in. It was a great, glorious open feeling, like I'd just unsealed my lungs for the first time and realized that there was air to breathe. You can only save yourself, says Dr. Feingold, but at least you can do that."

Reading Disobedience has been very insightful for me. Ronit loves her religion but she doesn't want to be restricted by it, how can she marry these two ideas? The people of her community don't believe it's possible. This is a topic/inner conflict I could read about all day. The following quote really speak to this inner conflict Ronit faces:

'Sometimes I think that God is punishing me. For what we did together. Sometimes I think that my life is a punishment for wanting. And the wanting is a punishment, too. But I think- if God wishes to punish me, so be it; that is His right. But it is my right to disobey.'"

I think it's very cool to hear religion positioned this way. The entire book is from Ronit's perspective so there are a lot of really thought provoking passages. Alderman herself grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community similar to the one described in Disobedience, so I did some research to determine if this novel had any autobiographical elements, and whether she was using Ronit as a voice for herself. I didn't find a conclusive answer to that question, but I did find a great quote from an interview she did with The Guardian in 2016:

I went into the novel religious and by the end I wasn't. I wrote myself out of it."

So maybe Disobedience was a bit of an unexpected cathartic experience for Alderman at the very least.

Rachel McAdams (left) and Rachel Weisz (right) in the upcoming film adaptation

Religion aside, Alderman dives into topics that I go back to all the time, ambivalence, relationships, and how these themes can be amplified by the presence of religion. I've talked on this blog 1000 times about my inability to make choices, and I don't have the fear of God to deal with on top of my own anxiety. I loved this passage where Ronit describes the complexities of making choices about your own life (applicable in religious and non-religious contexts):

We hang suspended between two certainties: the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts. Thus, we remain forever uncertain. Our lives present us with choices, further choices and more choices, each multiplying, our ability to find our way forever in doubt. Unhappy creatures! Luckiest of all beings! Our triumph is our downfall, our opportunity for condemnation is also our chance for greatness. And all we have, in the end, are the choices we make."

She also touched on the complexities of marriage, another topic I am obsessed with. Esti is married to Ronit's cousin Dovid, but still in love with Ronit. Esti really only married Dovid because Ronit went to New York and was, to her knowledge, never coming back. She isn't unhappy with Dovid, but marrying him wasn't the answer to her heartbreak either despite her best efforts. Ronit observes their marriage with what I would call mild jealousy mixed with mild pity. It's also clear that Ronit doesn't really respect marriage as she's having a casual affair with a married man she works with in New York.

Those who believe that marriage is an end in itself, that it is a guarantee of contentment, are fools. Marriage is difficult. It is painful. And it was meant to be so... And although marriage may, in slow and unexpected ways, bring us much joy and satisfaction, nothing of the sort has been promised."

Esti, naive as she is written, believes Ronit's return means they can be together again. Ronit, much smarter and less jaded, knows this isn't going to happen. It's never clear whether it's because of their religion, because of Esti's marriage, or because Ronit has simply moved on. I did love this quote though:

It is a terrible, wretched thing to love someone whom you know cannot love you. There are things that are more dreadful. There are many human pains more grievous. And yet it remains both terrible and wretched. Like so many things, it is insoluble."

I thought this book was really well-written but also super anti-climatic. I enjoyed reading it but I can easily see how other people could call it boring. I can't think of a single person in my life I'd recommend it to, which is unfortunate because I liked it so much. I think the upcoming film adaptation will be amazing and I hope the writer who adapted the screenplay was true to Alderman's novel.

Margaret Atwood (left) with Alderman (right)

This book won the Orange Award for new writers, and I think it was well-deserved. The fact that this is Alderman's first novel is honestly baffling, and I do look forward to reading more of her work. It's clear she's very talented, Margaret frigging Atwood chose her as her protege as part of a mentorship program, and Barack Obama recently listed Alderman's The Power as one of his favourite reads of 2017.

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