When I first read Anna Solomon’s irresistible, sexy and intelligent novel “The Book of V,” we were on the heels of Purim, the holiday from which the book springs. The coronavirus pandemic had hushed its observance: Festivities were muted, carnivals canceled. There’d be no Esther reigning in sateen, no Vashti lurking in crushed velvet.
Purim celebrates the story of Esther, who marries the king of Persia after his first wife, Vashti, is cast off. After winning a beauty contest, Esther — who is mistaken for a non-Jew — is exalted for outing herself and saving her people. When I was growing up, the Purim pageant play felt lacking in nuance. Esther was good; Haman was bad; Vashti, the proto-goth, embodied an unexplored darkness.
In her imaginative and fiercely feminist retelling, Solomon offers much greater complexity. Lily, one of the main characters in “The Book of V,” explains the holiday tartly: “lots of drunkenness and misogyny but also female worship, which you could argue is a form of misogyny, and a so-so king and good queen and evil side-guy, celebrated with a play and a big carnival and pageant and triangle-shaped cookies and also there’s a thwarted genocide of the Jews .?.?. it’s kind of a burlesque!”
Solomon’s novel spans generations, stretching millennia to weave three vibrant and transporting tales from the fabric of a biblical past. We meet an orphaned Esther of ancient Persia; Vee Kent, pedigree wife to a rising senator in early 1970s Washington; and Lily, a would-be writer cum wife and mother second-guessing herself in brownstone Brooklyn. Despite playful winks to their source, archetypes are reductive. Women can be Vashti and Esther. Ruth, Lily’s dying mother, quips that “it’s all the same costume, anyway.”
In “The Book of V,” everyone is playing a part, self-appointed or culturally prescribed. For Vee, sexuality is a mask. She conforms to expectation, “wanting it to save her,” until she refuses to strip publicly for her sleazy husband, an act of resistance that exiles her from the Beltway to her friend Rosemary’s Gloucester, Mass., home, to consciousness-raising groups, and ultimately to a life of independence and reinvention. Meanwhile, by adopting the role of homemaker in 2016, “Lily has not become the type of woman she was supposed to become.” As for Esther, her appearance may have granted her wary royal entry, but marriage proves nothing but a trap, fueling a rage that unleashes her shape-shifting powers.
Masks serve a purpose, protecting the vulnerable self from the outside world. Ruth, Lily’s mother, a central figure around whom much of the plot twists, is “the kind of private person who wears a face that makes her seem like a public person.” These self-preserving measures frustrate, rendering women inscrutable, their capabilities a threat. “This is what men hate about women, [Lily] thinks, that we are actors, that between our urges and our actions there are these layers, this angling and scrim.”
Of course, in this disconnect between urge and action, a fecund interiority awaits. Like Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours,” whose triptych structure Solomon credits, the novel skillfully mines the domestic sphere (of parties, sewing circles, hidden gatherings of kept virgins) for its kinetic inner life. When Lily becomes entangled with another father, we experience her fever of contradiction: “Oh please I am not going to be that woman; it’s too predictable, too depressing in its predictability; hello midlife, hello grief, hello lust.” The female mind cannot be tamed; therein lies the rebellion.
With their historical footing, Jewish context and renegade women, Solomon’s previous novels “The Little Bride” and “Leaving Lucy Pear” lay the foundation for this multifaceted masterwork, which extends the scope of her sensibility over a larger landscape. Her gorgeous, lilting prose vibrates with fight, destabilizing patriarchal norms with questions of power and want, identity and self-determination to timeless and timely results.
Perhaps the past has never felt more pressing. Comparisons to the 1918 flu pandemic aside, our current moment has found us Zooming through Seders, hoping the covid-19 plague should pass us over, struggling to make sense of it all. A novel like “The Book of V” reminds us, once we weather the grief and despair, that we can rewrite ourselves from the reverberations of history into fortifying new spaces, shape and possibility.
So we wear our masks, without letting them define us. For all our guises, our avowals and disavowals, maybe it’s true, as Lily comes to realize, that “the type of woman you imagine yourself becoming does not exist.” We contain multitudes, etc. Self-care as Audre Lorde intended becomes a rallying cry to pass through generations: “Take care of yourself. No one else will.” Only upon reckoning with our honest, unadorned selves might we integrate desire and action, and hope to see and be seen.
Which returns me to Vashti. The origin story relegates her to offstage shadow. No one knows what really happens. Lily wonders, “Wasn’t it her absence that made the story possible?” In a clever power move, Solomon subverts the canon, reclaiming narrative control of the Book of Esther (thought to be written by Mordechai, Esther’s relative who raised her) and ascribing female authorship to “The Book of V.”
As with “Mrs. Dalloway” to “The Hours,” the biblical echoes throughout offer a sort of treasure-hunt gratification, but the novel succeeds on its own. As with the best of desert-island (or pandemic) reads, “The Book of V” radiates a dynamism that invites rereads and generously keeps giving — challenging and arousing us as it delights.
Sara Lippmann, author of the story collection “Doll Palace,” is working on a novel.
By Anna Solomon
Henry Holt and Company. 320 pp. $27.95