A Magical Journey
The Ghost of Hannah Mendes by Naomi Ragen
Reviewed by Shoshana Gabbay
Through the past decade, critics and readers have not known quite what to make of Naomi Ragen and her best-selling books about ultra-Orthodox Jewry. Although categorized as a writer of popular fiction because of her books wonderful, fast-moving story-lines, it has become increasingly clear that Naomi Ragen is a truly gifted and serious writer whose books -- JEPHTES DAUGHTER, SOTAH, and, THE SACRIFICE OF TAMAR provide a courageous and startlingly honest portrait of a society shrouded in mystery. In many ways, they are page-turners with a serious agenda in the best tradition of such literary giants as John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, and Charles Dickens.
With the publication of THE GHOST OF HANNAH MENDES (Simon and Schuster, August 1998) Ms. Ragen fortifies her growing reputation as a gifted writer of rare vision.
Based on the fascinating historical character Hannah (Gracia) Mendes, a Renaissance businesswoman who lived the dangerous double life of a secret Jew during the height of the Inquisition, Ms. Ragen has woven a mesmerizing tale of past and present, passion, family loyalty, religious faith, and ghostly visitations that will keep her fans, and many, many new readers enthralled until the last page.
When Catherine da Costa, a wealthy matron living on Park Avenue(and Hannah Mendes descendant), is told she has only a few months to live, she begins to examine her life and the heritage she will leave behind. Appalled to find she has failed in passing down her familys remarkable legacy to her offspring, she sinks into guilt-ridden despair, until she is visited by an ancestral ghost. Together, the two create a game-plan that will turn the lives of her unmarried, mid-twenties granddaughters upside-down, uprooting them from their casual affairs, safe jobs, money-market funds, and trendy social causes and sending them on a remarkable journey into their past as well as into the arms of some fascinating and eligible young men.
Readers familiar with Ms. Ragens earlier works will be startled to find that this book deals with very different territory. Not the black-coated, Talmud-thumping inhabitants of Jerusalem and New York ghettos, but sophisticated, almost totally assimilated Jews of Sephardic background. What this book shares with her earlier works and which will ensure its enthusiastic reception by her fans --is the characteristic accuracy and thoroughness in which Ms. Ragen describes her cultural and religious milieu. As with her earlier books, I finished this one not only having enjoyed a complex and emotionally satisfying story, but with a wealth of knowledge about Sephardic history and customs.
What Ms. Ragen handles so remarkably well here --- and it is no easy task is the structure of the novel in which she creates two distinct voices, two separate books really. We have the story of Hannah Mendes sounding authentically like that of a first-person memoir of that remarkable Renaissance woman; and then the modern novel, a truly wonderful description of the angst of the single New York career girl.
Suzanne Abraham is a stunning and passionate young woman who falls headlong into one affair and cause after another. Her sister Francesca, petite, wary, sensible, living her cautious life in a big New York apartment complex, is convinced her job is the hub of her existence until she is suddenly fired for no good reason. Neither girl is interested in anything as amorphous as family legacy, religious rituals, or cultural obligations. It is these unlikely candidates that must be convinced of the importance of carrying on all three.
Loosing these young women from their moorings with everything from the emotional blackmail of her imminent death to the sweet promise of an all-expenses paid jaunt to Europe, Catherine convinces them to help her track down the pages of an ancient manuscript, the first person memoirs of Hannah Mendes. While the search itself is fascinatingan armchair travelers dream escape to London, Venice, Gibraltar, Cordoba, and Toledothe counterpoint of the historical and modern womens lives gives the reader a real sense of how modern life could benefit from ancient wisdom, and how 500 years is really not all that long ago.
One of my favorite passages in the book makes this theme clear. As Catherine tells her bored and reluctant granddaughters: "Were conduits. The past is supposed to pass through us, to connect us to the future ... Like trees ... were planted in old soil enriched by the lives and deaths of so many who came before us. The nourishment is meant to pass through us on to the newest branches, so that each branch grows a little taller and blooms more beautifully still."
The whole idea of continuity, of how one generation passes down all that is most worthwhile and precious to its children, is the real theme of this book, and one that is sure to be of great interest not only to Jews, but to anyone concerned about getting through the earphones and computer screens to grab the attention of the next generation; to anyone convinced that the biggest problem facing us in the new millennium is not our differences, but the "overwhelming tedium of the sameness that is drowning out what each of us has learned, what each of us can contribute."
This is the kind of intergenerational book people of all ages and backgrounds are going to cherish and read again and again, the way they did THE SHELLSEEKERS. Its going to be the book that finally places Naomi Ragen up there where she belongs: with the best and most interesting writers publishing today.
Shoshana Gabbay is a freelance journalist and literary critic.