Aaron Levy cannot believe he will have to abide the sullen nature of his new mentor, just to be able to have a peek at the rabbinical documents and letters found under the stairs of an historic home outside London. Helen Watts, this new professor he’s been asked to assist, seems not to have smiling nor social graces in her repertoire. In truth, he realizes as time passes, that they both have issues to work out as they work together to uncover the secrets that have been buried under these stairs for centuries… And centuries ago, in the 16oo’s, after taking 2 orphans to London with him as he fled the Spanish Inquisition, Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, blind, but trying to teach a few students, has compromised and allowed one of these orphans to be his scribe. Ester, the bookish adolescent who dreams of nothing but to study and learn as much as she can as any boy might, has taken her seat at the writing table and begun to scribe the rabbi’s letters for him. But as she grows older and reaches the age of marriage, this becomes more and more controversial and Ester devises a plan almost in spite of herself.
This is a magnificently crafted work of historical fiction. The author weaves the plot by gracefully swinging back and forth between the modern day historians and the original characters, layering each of the characters’ stories on each others’ in order to build the connections — and the suspense as well. And as the story builds, the characters deepen, and they each become much more sympathetic in their own ways. As the scribe Ester becomes more and more real to the two historians, both Aaron and Helen become more and more human themselves and discover that each of them has used history as a way to escape their own humanness.
The writing in this book is brilliant. It is beautiful, rich, and full. The characters are complicated and imperfect and human and they are hard to leave when you finish the book.
You will also learn a lot of history from this book. The time is the 1600’s, when there were many who had just fled the Inquisition. People were terrified to speak their minds, fearing that if they said anything against any church, they’d be tortured and killed. Women had one role in society and that was to marry and raise a family – and if they did not marry, their lot was to struggle and do housework for someone who was married and it was a hard life if you chose that route. And then came the plague in London, which devastated much of the population. It was a gruesome time.
But in spite of the ugliness of the time, the beauty lies in the resilience of the people living through it – and that is what is captured here in this story.
I loved this book – I am confident you will too!