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March 5, 2017

Book Review || The Ghost of Hannah Mendes by Naomi Ragen

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I really wanted to like Naomi Ragen's historical romance novel 'The Ghost of Hannah Mendes'. I really did. But I felt as if I was trapped in a Mills & Boon nightmare of tropes.

It starts off with the matriarch of a Jewish family, Catherine, discovering she has but months to live and regretting that she did not pass on her heritage as was her duty, both as the eldest and as the carrier of her family's traditions. She is visited by the ghost of her famous descendent, Gracia Mendes Nasi (who is based on a real person) and warned that the family tree is dying, since Catherine's two grandchildren seem set on becoming old without settling down and having children. In possession of only a portion of Gracia's memoir, she decides to make her grandchildren, Francesca and Suzanne, find the rest of it, with the hope that they will reunite, come to value their heritage, and decide to settle down with good Jewish men.

I think I couldn't like this novel because I couldn't like any of the characters in it. Catherine is the stereotypical rich woman feeling lost after realising money isn't everything; Suzanne is the stereotypical black-sheep-of-the-family because she wanted to be with her married boyfriend who was not Jewish and a vegetarian; Francesca is the stereotypical working woman floundering after being fired from a job she was very good at and suffering from traumatic romances. Every single character feels as though their characteristics were ticked off of a list for their character types.

And of course, these women so set against romance and pleasing their families just happen to find love with men who are literally too darn good to be true, practically dripping out of the pages of quick-read romances. And they are even Jewish to top it off! What a happy coincidence! It's all too cut-and-dry for me and the love scenes filled with unpredictable passion, love at first sight, feelings of safety and security, are sickly sweet. Certainly, you may love someone with all of your being but no one is perfect and in real life things get in the way. No matter how ideally the pair may be matched.

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A portrait suspected to be of Gracia Nasi
I really enjoyed the historical aspects of the novel - the locations visited, the story of the Spanish Inquisition, and Gracia's own experiences - and I know that the theme of the story is to honour your family and your traditions and your religion, but I really feel there was something missing in the telling. Ragen tried to cram too much into the novel. In my opinion, she should rather have focused on either the Catherine-granddaughter story or written the entire story in Gracia's time. Throwing the memoir into the story seemed haphazard and there are moments in the plot - such as after Francesca meets Elizabeta - where everything is up in the air, pained attempts at cliffhanging that were more annoying than intriguing.

Could you say this is a feminist novel, since it is told only from the points of view of the women? I wouldn't say so. The female characters feel as though they've been written by a man, their only concerns their appearances and their stereotypical interests. Plus, the whole idea behind it is that the female granddaughters are not becoming mothers and not getting married, which is unacceptable. While Gracia Mendes is an amazing character historically, lauded in the novel for her business acumen and saving thousands of refugees during the Inquisition and for keeping her family together, it felt a little preachy to me.

In the end I finished the novel just to see how it ended, which is ~ unpredictably ~ happily ever after.

{Image credit: Bronzino [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons}

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