Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem / Sarit Yishai-Levi; translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris.
New York: Thomas Dunne, c2016.
374 p.

Amongst all my Canadian reads lately, I'm still reading some stories of other places. I'd heard this one talked about a bit online, and then it came in at my library and looked like just the thing for me. 

Somehow, I'd missed everything about it except that it was about a family of women in Jerusalem. And that turned out to be a great thing, because the story was a real surprise for me. I began reading about the Ermosa family; the matriarch Mercada, her favourite son Gabriel who falls out of favour by falling in love with an Ashkenazi, his punishment of a quick marriage to the lowly Rosa (an orphan and house cleaner) and then the succeeding lives of their children and grandchildren. It's a big, long, interwoven, historical, dramatic family saga which strongly reminds me of Latin American literature. 

When I began reading, I didn't twig to the family's name right away. On the first page, they use Spanish phrases (actually Ladino, which I comprehended shortly) and eating Spanish food and I was very confused. Then it became clear; this is a Sephardic family, who had come to Palestine from Spain long before the Mandate, and lived through all the upheaval that brought Israel into statehood. 

I knew next to nothing about either of these things, except for the basic history that is generally taught. So I found this book very illuminating about the state of life in Palestine and Israel. I found that there was a great deal of conflict between Sephardi and Ashkenazi, which I hadn't realized before. It made me sad; even in a state being created for the Jewish people there were still divisions about who was the better Jew. But it seems like this happens everywhere, to every country. 

Anyhow, the book was a bit of a lengthy read as there are many characters. It follows four generations of this family, with the lynch-pin being Rosa and Gabriel's oldest daughter, Luna. She outshines her sisters by her force of personality (though her sisters are much nicer people), and she is the centre of the world to the narrator, her daughter Gabriela, despite their rocky relationship. As we learn about her in the title drop:

   Luna talked about clothes as if they were precious objects, each dress a diamond, every skirt a pearl. Her love for clothes infected everyone who came in to the shop, and there wasn't a customer who left empty-handed. 
   The shop employed several seamstresses who made the clothes according to patterns that appeared in Burda magazine, and Luna would devour the magazine voraciously, studying it for hours on end. She spent all her wages on clothes, she purchased from the shop, and was always dressed at the height of fashion, accessorized to the most minute detail. The polish on her fingernails matched that on her toenails, which matched her lipstick, which in turn matched her dress, shoes and handbag. As she dressed, she blossomed.
   Luna grew more beautiful from day to day, and her beauty was renowned throughout Jerusalem. "The beauty queen," they called her, "the beauty queen of Jerusalem." And she , who was aware of her beauty and understood the looks of the men who were unable to tear their eyes from her, shamelessly exploited it. It accorded her an advantage and power, and she felt she could conquer the world. 

I love this excerpt because it captures both Luna's self-absorbed character, and her status in the community. And because I, like Luna, have also spent hours poring over my own Burda magazines. 

I found this a fascinating read for all it had to teach me about a culture I knew little about. And because the connection of the women around Luna was compelling. Luna herself was prickly, unlikeable, but had her own secrets. Her daughter was also not a favourite character for me, having many of the same characteristics. But Luna's sisters and mother all really caught me. The story follows their female relationships as well as their disparate romances, and reveals their opinions, whether active or dismissive, on politics.

There are some flaws with this novel; the first written by a journalist, it does have its share of dry reportage moments. And it can feel a bit melodramatic from time to time. But if you are prepared for a family saga which highlights life in Jerusalem via a Latin American feel, with some flashes of magical realism along with some gritty realism as well, you might find that you also really enjoy it. 


  1. Lovely, insightful, and interesting review, as usual. It sounds like an interesting book, in several ways.

    1. Interesting and unexpected! I loved these women and all their ups and downs.


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