Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Review: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

We have been lost to each other for so long.
My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust. [except from prologue]

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Picador, 1997
Fiction (Historical); 321 pgs

Synopsis from the Publisher:
Her name is Dinah. In the Bible, her life is only hinted at in a brief and violent detour within the more familiar chapters of the Book of Genesis that are about her father, Jacob, and his dozen sons. Told in Dinah's voice, this novel reveals the traditions and turmoils of ancient womanhood—the world of the red tent. It begins with the story of her mothers—Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah—the four wives of Jacob. They love Dinah and give her gifts that sustain her through a hard-working youth, a calling to midwifery, and a new home in a foreign land. Dinah's story reaches out from a remarkable period of early history and creates an intimate connection with the past. Deeply affecting, The Red Tent combines rich storytelling with a valuable achievement in modern fiction: a new view of biblical women's society.

Occasionally I come across a book I know I will read again. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is one such book.

I admit I was really hung up on the whole "biblical" side of the story before beginning my reading, and that was a bit off putting. As much as I love to explore religions of all kinds and their histories, reading a book about biblical figures isn’t exactly my cup of tea. Even with the reassurances of friends and fellow bloggers that I had nothing to worry about, I still hesitated. I dragged my feet and even considered not reading it just yet. But I voted for the book in a group read and it would not look very good if I did not at least give it a try. And, of course, just like everyone said, I had nothing to worry about.

I loved the prologue. It is one of those that grabbed my attention from the very first moment. I was sure I would love the book. As I continued on, however, I became disillusioned. The story itself was interesting, including the history of Dinah’s family, in particular that of her mothers and how they came to be with her father, Jacob. It was written in the style of a story being told to the next generation—the exact atmosphere the author was most likely hoping to achieve. And yet, I found my attention wandering. I wanted to be a part of the story, rather than just having it told to me (I blame that more on my mood than on the book itself). Not to mention I wanted to get to know Dinah. Her family history was interesting and all, but I wanted to know more about Dinah.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when the book completely won be over—when I knew I might end up loving it after all. It was about page 161 when Dinah was left behind by her family to serve her grandmother, Rebecca, in Mamre.

Despite my reservations about the biblical aspects of the novel, I couldn't help but think of the Bible stories I was raised on as I read; and I wish I'd remembered them a little more clearly. Throughout the early part of the novel, I repeatedly flipped back to the family tree at the beginning of the book, making sure I remembered who belonged to who and how they were all connected.

What drew me most to the story was the strength of the women and the joy and care they took in their traditions and beliefs. Even though they lived in a patriarchal society, their rituals and traditions were empowering. It was a time when a girl becoming a woman was celebrated; whereas the day would eventually come when it was something to hide and be seen as a curse. There was one moment in the novel in which Jacob learns of the women’s rituals surrounding a girl’s first menses. He becomes angry and violent. I couldn’t help but feel very sad at that point. It was a foreshadowing of what would come—not in the book so much, but in reality—such traditions eventually died out in many cultures and were no longer reveled in. Just as how the stories, once passed down from mother to daughter, seemingly became the realm of men. Or at least, their stories became the ones heard and repeated most often.

Dinah had a relatively happy childhood, but her adulthood was a difficult one, no thanks to two of her brothers. I most enjoyed the time we spent in Egypt together, although it was not always the happiest of times. It was during the second half of the book that I really felt I got to know Dinah, and became a part of her world. I cried with her and took joy in the happy moments. She truly is an admirable character and I am glad I got the chance to know her in The Red Tent.

The Red Tent reminded me a bit of one of my favorite novels: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. The two are very different books, of course, but they both feature strong female characters and touch on similar issues that women faced in our history as well as on a spiritual level.

By the time I finished the last chapter of the book, I felt satisfied. There is so much more I could say about this book. It is full of nuances I have not even begun to touch here. Even with those moments when I doubted the book would live up to my expectations, I can truly say this is a book well worth reading.

Rating: * (Very Good)

Challenge Commitment Fulfilled: 2nds Challenge

To learn more about the author, Anita Diamant, and her books, visit her website.

© 2009, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.


  1. I only got to read about 1/4 of this before I had to return it to the library. I need to get it again!

  2. I'm hesitant of picking this one because of the "biblical" side of the story, but then I've heard so much raves on this book that I need to consider about picking up this book again.

    As always, thanks for the great review, Wendy! :)

  3. I can do biblical, as long as it is well-written. You see this book everywhere, I guess with good reason. Great review Wendy!

  4. Hi Wendy,
    I am semi back to blogging due to some more problems with ex...have to be in court again, he skipped to Maryland but I have his address finally, this time it is going to stick. Anyway I read this book a few years ago and liked it a lot.

    Hope you are having a good week :)


  5. I liked this book, Biblical or not. Certain rituals mentioned in the book are still followed in a few oplaces in India..That means Hinduism...

  6. I really liked this book. There were some in an online book club that read this book who absolutely hated it. A vanilla/chocolate thing I guess.

  7. Like you, I was hung up on the biblical stuff before I read this book. My sister recommended it, and our reading tastes are quite different, so I was sure I wouldn't like it. But I ended up getting pulled into the story, and it's one I would be happy to re-read at some point.

  8. The fact that you ended loving a book that you hesitated to read says a lot.

  9. THis is the book that made me start blogging. I read it and just had to share how much I loved it!

  10. Can we say, "I told you so!"? I don't remember much of the plot on this one, but I do remember the feeling and I loved it. I cried and cried at one point near the end.

  11. I loved this book. Biblical fiction is so often dreadfully written, and this is so wonderful!

  12. I'm so glad you loved this as much as I did and didn't let the biblical side put you off. I can definitely see why you compare it to Mists of Avalon. It's the whole womens spirituality aspects of both and reading a story from an untraditional female viewpoint.

    Have you read the rest of the Avalon series? I recently finished Ravens of Avalon which Diana Paxson wrote after discussions with MZB before she died. I must review it soon as it was excellent.

  13. I have never heard of any one that did not really like this book. It's been sitting in my TBR pile for a long while; I really need to move it up the pile.

  14. I need to give this book another try.

  15. I hadn't thought to compare it to MISTS OF AVALON but you are right, there are some strong similarities. MISTS is one of my all time favorite books, and I also really enjoyed THE RED TENT. So glad that you finally gave in a read this one ... and that you liked it so much!

  16. I'm so glad you ended up liking this book - it's one of my favourites. I'll probably read it again someday too.

  17. I read this book years ago and some of the ideas and scenes are still very vivid to me. Glad you enjoyed it!

  18. I have so wanted to read this! I love Biblical fiction, but I haven't read much in ages.

  19. Thanks for your review. I read the book years ago and didn't enjoy it but others in my book club did. I felt at the time that I might re-read it in the future since sometimes books just don't find us at the right time. Based on your review I am willing to give it another try...your review makes the book sounds very appealing!

  20. I've been meaning to start this for ages, but another book always jumps ahead! I won't let that happen anymore, though. It sounds like an amazing book.

  21. This is one of those books I keep saying I must read, but just never get around to doing it. I guess maybe I should just take the plunge!!

    Great review, wendy!!

  22. Like a few who have commented before me, I don't think I had seen the similarities to The Mists of Avalon before, but now that you mention it, the books do seem to have a few things in common.

    I read this several years ago and couldn't put it down. I think it's one reason I'm inclined to be more open to checking out "Biblical fiction" (fiction directly drawn from the Bible, that is; Biblical themes and parallels in literature are a long tradition). Glad you liked it, Wendy!

  23. I read this book years ago yet I can still remember it. It remains one of my favorites but I'd really like to reread it especially after your review!

  24. You have just given all the reasons why I really want to read this book! It has been on my list for years and I have picked it up countless times, but it never feels right. I think I know I need to be in the right mindset when I read it, and if I am, I will likely love the book! As a very non-religious person, I am a little concerned I will struggle with it, but will focus on the same facets of the story you have described here, the strength of Dinah and the role of women in history and family. Thanks for the great review.

  25. I read this book quite some time ago and loved it. I'm glad that this one worked for you!!!

  26. I am so happy you finally read The Red Tent. I told you I felt you would love Dinah, that she was a strong female and that alone was worth the read. I will never forget this book and I also will read it again sometime. I didn't know anything about it when I picked it up, and I wasn't blogging then.
    I was a little worried when I told you I thought you would like it, whew...I'm glad you did.
    I can see how you see the similarities in The Mists of Avalon, another of my strong women favorites.
    Terrific review, I loved hearing your thoughts.

  27. What a great review! I've been wanting to read this for so long, but I can't seem to be able to put my hand on it at the library! I'm glad you enjoyed it too :)

  28. I think biblical or faith-based stories are inspiring and edifying. I grew up with Bible stories and I think in many ways, their stories jive with ours in the modern days. Different time period, different places/settings, but at the core of it, the principles and nature of things remain unchanged.

  29. Yay! I'm glad you were able to stick with it and ended up really enjoying it. I think I mentioned before that it also took me a while to get into it but once I did I loved it. Dinah really was a great character!

  30. Lenore - If you do get a chance to finish it, I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

    Melody - That's how I was, but it really has nothing to do with the Bible at all, other than sharing some of the same people mentioned in it.

    Sandy - Anita Diamant is a good author. I can't wait to read her latest.

    Sylvie - I'm sorry you're still having problems with your ex. Now that you know where he maybe he'll finally be held responsible. My thoughts are with you!

    Gautami - I can believe it. I think the "biblical" side of the book is overplayed in the advertising.

    Lynne - From the opinions I've heard so far in talking to people about the book, the reception of this book have been mixed. I've only ran across one person who so despised it that they referred to the book as flying in the face of Christianity.

    I can see why some people might not care for The Red Tent in general. It definitely won't appeal to everyone.

    Charley - I think I would get even more out of it with a second reading. I'm glad I finally got over my initial hesitation. :-)

    Kathy - That seems to be happening to me a lot lately. :-)

    Marg - It definitely got me talking! My poor husband's ear suffered for days after. LOL

    Lisa - Haha! Yes, you can say "I told you so!" I couldn't help but cry towards the end either.

  31. Sarah - It was very well written, I agree!

    Rhinoa - You put it so well! That's exactly the parallel I found myself drawing as I read.

    I've read only two or three of the Avalon series so far, but I do want to read the rest. I'll have to look for the discussion you mention when I get to Ravens of Avalon. I won't want to miss that.

    Lisa (Lit&Life) - I hope you enjoy it when you get to it! Hopefully it won't still be in your TBR pile four years from now--that's how long it took me to get to this one. :-)

    Stacy - I know not everyone liked this one--and that's okay. Try it again only if you want to. No pressure. :-)

    Heather - Sometimes I think I have Mists of Avalon on the brain. LOL

    Myckyee - It's definitely worth a re-read. I love Anita Diamant's writing style.

    Karen - I have a feeling it will prove to be the same for me. :-)

    Nicola - It definitely offers a different perspective of some of the biblical figures we grew up with.

    Kathleen - I know what you mean about timing. It could mean everything when it comes to reading and enjoying certain books. If you do give this one another try, I hope you will like it better.

    Nymeth - I'd love to get your take on this book, Nymeth. I really value your insight into books like this.

  32. Stephanie - Thanks! You should give it a try. I'd love to know what you think of it.

    Florinda - I found it hard to put down too, especially once it really took off for me. I'll be a little less reluctant with the next book I come across like this, I think. :-)

    Dar - I can see why it would be a favorite. I'm glad I read it. :-)

    Mariel - I am glad I finally made myself read this one. :-) Like you, I just needed to be in the right mood for it and not focus so much on the "biblical" issue--which really was a non-issue as you'll see when you read it. I do hope you like it!

    Staci - I am glad now I can finally say I've read it. LOL

    Wisteria - Your comments about the book definitely stuck with me as I got over my final hesitation in starting it. Thank you, Donna!

    Kay - Thanks! I do hope you'll enjoy it when you are able to get your hands on a copy!

    Alice - Faith-based stories can be inspiring, I agree. I love exploring different religions and their histories--what you wrote can be said for so many of them.

    Nat - Yes, I remember you saying that and I appreciate it. I definitely did like the second part of the story best. :-) Dinah was a great character. I'm glad I finally got the chance to meet her. :-)

  33. I loved this book, which is part of the 2000-year-old Jewish tradition of midrash.

  34. Beth - I remember reading that somewhere when I was researching the book. It's a great tradition. I am glad you enjoyed the book. :-)

  35. I rarely re-read books, but this is one I kept as I know I will re-read it someday.


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