In high school, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant was on a list of optional summer reading–we had to read something from the list but not everything, and I opted to read something else. I heard good things about the book from friends though, and it’s been floating at the back of my mind as something I ought to read some time ever since. I’ve been reading through Genesis in the Bible recently and came to the portion about Jacob and his family–and decided it was time to finally get The Red Tent off my mental to-read list. And after fifteen or so years…I felt mixed about the book!
I love the concept of this book so much that I’m surprised it took me this long to read it. (Sort of. More on that later.) It’s the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and sister to his twelve sons (most famously, Joseph of the many-colored coat). It retells the Biblical story of this very complicated family from the women’s perspective, focusing on Dinah and the four wives (ish) of Jacob. Since the Bible tends to be heavily male, I love that concept–and reading through the Genesis account made me want to explore the women’s side.
But then I didn’t really love what was done with it. The book starts before Dinah’s birth, telling the story of how Jacob met and married Rachel and Leah and (kind of) married their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah, and how all those brothers came along. And that sounds complicated and interesting, but somehow the book wound up being very, very focused on sex, childbirth and circumcision. And I can see how all of those would be important, but it was…very heavily weighted on those three topics.
The story improved for me once Dinah was born and it could focus on her rather than a vague omniscient story of her four mothers. There was a lot that was interesting about the culture of the time, particularly the women’s culture. I can’t honestly say how accurate any of it was, but at least as a possible perspective it was engaging. I liked Dinah’s childhood probably best of any section of the book.
But eventually Dinah grew up, and we got to the part of her story that was in the Bible. Sort of. I actually do have some idea of why I didn’t read this for fifteen years–the one story about Dinah in the Bible is, at least in my copy, titled “The Rape of Dinah.” And I didn’t want to read a novel featuring a rape of the main character. Well…I should have asked someone about that, because (as is implied on page one, so it’s not really a spoiler) Diamant changed that part.
I can’t decide how I feel about that. On the one hand, I appreciate that the female character was not a victim and instead had ownership of and choice about her sexuality. And I didn’t want to read about a rape anyway. But on the other hand–why retell a story about a Biblical (or historical, either way) character if you’re going to fundamentally alter the one story that exists about her? A little research suggests there is some debate around whether “rape” is the right translation in the Biblical story, so Diamant may have been exploring that ambiguity to tell a different story than the traditional one. But it still feels like it’s side-stepping to change the major story as it’s usually understood about the character you’re retelling.
The whole thing propels us into some horrific violence, and then a very sad, grim portion of the book. Even though Dinah ultimately finds a community, purpose and happiness, somehow the book never lifted out of sadness for me. Maybe because the nicer bits of the Bible story, like Joseph reconciling with his brothers and father, never happened, everyone (including Dinah) harboring resentment and anger and broken family ties instead. Overall, many of the more likable Biblical characters did not come out positively in this retelling, including Jacob, Joseph, Rebecca and Isaac.
There was also a remarkable lack of religion present, for a Biblical retelling. Jacob follows “the God of Abram” (not changed into Abraham as in the Biblical account) but that’s clearly a male thing the women have no real involvement with. Also, following the God of Abram seems to mostly be a matter of circumcision and smashing idols, so that’s not…super inspiring.
I feel I’m being very negative here! This book is beloved of a lot of people, including some I know, but it just wasn’t quite what I was looking for, I think. I struggle whenever I like a premise so much more than I like its execution. I did like the concept here and some of the ways it was explored, and I liked Dinah herself and her journey. I’m glad I finally read this one and that I continued reading to the end to see how it would turn out–but it was surprisingly grim, for a book that didn’t even include the one dark incident I expected.