Author: Naomi Alderman
Details: (c) Naomi Alderman 2006; Pub Viking (Penguin) 2006; ISBN 0-670-91628-3
Verdict: Disobedience is highly readable and more profound than it appears.
Reasons for reading it: My parents read it for their Jewish book club and were raving about it. Also I heard an extract read on Radio 4 a while back and it sounded intriguing.
How it came into my hands: I borrowed it from the parents when I visited.
Disobedience was a great read, as witness the fact that I read the whole thing in odd moments over less than two days. In fact, I ran out of book this morning because I didn't expect to get through so many pages quite so quickly. It's accessible without being lowest common denominator though; there's a lot going on in it.
There aren't many trendy novels set in the modern Orthodox world; that part of the community is a lot less photogenic than the various Chassidic and ultra-Orthodox sects. It's not the novel I would most want to see on this topic, but it does provide quite an interesting viewpoint. The subtlety comes from the unreliable narrator; Ronit expresses all the negative stereotypes of Orthodoxy that one expects from this kind of hip, secular novel, but it quickly becomes apparent that she's horribly shallow and rather a bitch, so the reader is led to question her value judgements without being spoonfed. It's impressive that Ronit still manages to be sympathetic in spite of her negative characteristics, too. It might be that people like penmage and ploni_bat_ploni would still find Disobedience an unfairly negative portrayal of the observant Jewish lifestyle, I'm not sure, but I thought that it did a good job of hinting at the positive aspects without being overly sentimental about it.
Similarly, Disobedience has many of the elements of a rather hackneyed love story, but it doesn't take the romance subplot in the obvious direction. I liked the ending a lot; it's ambiguous and unexpected, but works well within the parameters the book has set up. It handles homosexuality in a refreshingly non-cliched way, too.
In a lot of ways the book feels quite journalistic. It's achingly well observed, sometimes funny, and as I said, highly readable. The balance between the three viewpoints works well, (and the third is an extremely subtle presence). Alderman does a good job of weaving midrashic elements into the story, and she tells those stories well and without descending into cheap mysticism. I am not claiming it's great literature, but it's entertaining in a way that's more than just candyfloss.