This densely written, intensely descriptive period piece tells the tale of Ruth bas Elazar Saul, the tenacious and exceptionally sharp daughter of the chief rabbi of Deutz, Cologne’s Jewish quarter (ok, ghetto) in the dark and deadly 1700’s – yes, during the Spanish Inquisition. She has bucked tradition and studied Kabbalah, the mystical lessons forbidden to women, through the books her mother bequeathed to her. To escape an arranged marriage she slips away to Amsterdam, where she chooses medical study. Upon return to her homeland and using her excellent skills, she serves as trusted midwife and delivers the babies of the affluent burghers of the city using unheard-of contemporary techniques… and maybe more.
Of course there’s a villain (the brutally cruel and sadistic wacko archbishop Carlos Vicente Solitario) who is out to get all Jews – but Ruth in particular, stemming from his unrequited attraction to Ruth’s mother, back in the day. She is arrested but due to her strength and intelligence (and yes, beauty) is befriended by the lusty Canon Detlef von Tennen, who is searching for meaning in his life. They fall in love and marry, despite the difference in religion. What else happens? Much, much more… and you have to read it to find out.
Even just thinking about this book and Learner’s storytelling ability gets me so happy that I’m kind of bouncing around in my chair. Spirituality and loss of belief, self-doubt and self-discovery, love lost and won, intrigue, obsession, sexual awakening (yes! really!) and murder are just a few of the themes in this gem. It’s plenty long, and oh so satisfying. All in all, I freakin’ love this book, and I loudly recommend it.
Ms. Learner, please, keep ’em coming!