Heaven: April Book Group: The Weight of Ink

TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
edited July 2020 in Limbo
April's discussion book is The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish. This is a book that falls into a category I invented myself to describe a type of book I particularly enjoy if it's well-done: "Adventures in Research," where a piece of historical fiction (or fact) is juxtaposed with the story of researchers trying to uncover that story. (By my definition, good examples include AS Byatt's Possession, while bad ones include Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but literature is subjective and YMMV).

To borrow the summary of the book on Goodreads:
Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history.

As the novel opens, Helen has been summoned by a former student to view a cache of seventeenth-century Jewish documents newly discovered in his home during a renovation. Enlisting the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and in a race with another fast-moving team of historians, Helen embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents’ scribe, the elusive “Aleph.”

There is also, as you can see from the summary, some timely plague-related content, although I don't recall it as being the most important strand in the book. What stands out to me from my first reading (I'm going to reread it this month) is the limited paths that were available in the 17th century for an intelligent woman who wanted to be a scholar, and the ways in which Ester tried to get past some of the obstacles that confronted her.

The book has been out a couple of years and is widely available in paperback, audio, and ebook, but I realize that for those who prefer paper books, it may be challenging to obtain books if your local libraries and bookstores are all closed. I hope enough people are able to get hold of it that we can have some discussion of it because I truly love this book. I'll post some questions for discussion around April 20, as is traditional. Who's interested?

Comments

  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Looking forward to the discussion. I'm abut a third through it at the moment.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I'm about halfway through. Enjoying it so far.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Just found the book in our living room. Ms. C. has read it and highly recommends it. I'm in.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    That was fortuitous @Caissa. Enjoy!
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    About half way through it, and very much enjoying it, but then I am a historian. I'm particularly enjoying the clashes of will between those who preserve documents and those who actually want to read the things!
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Ms. C has read it and commends it. I started it this morning before getting out of bed and I am hooked. I will be alternating reading it this weekend with Ken Dryden's book on Scotty Bowman.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Finished it last night. It is one of the best books I have read in awhile.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    It was my best book of the year, for the year I read it. Working on my reread now with a view to posting discussion questions next week.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I finished reading it yesterday. Looking forward to the discussion.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I have finished too. I always look forward to the book club discussions, but at the moment even more so as I can count it as part of my limited social life now that all my social life is by phone or internet!
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    I finished my re-read late last night and can report the book stands up well to a second reading. I think we normally post questions on the 20th of the month, though I could do it over the weekend if everyone who was reading the book has finished. I think @Marama is the only person who said they were reading it but hasn't yet reported having finished ... anyone else still reading through it?
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    Yes, I've finished it. Start discussion whenever you're ready. Great book.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    OK, here are some questions to start with. As always, use them as jumping-off points, but don't feel you have to answer all of them, only those that interest you. And feel free to introduce any other side topics or questions of your own!

    1. Which of the two stories did you find more engaging -- Ester's story from the past, or the contemporary story of Helen, Aaron, and the documents?
    2. Who was your favourite character? Why? Were there characters you actively disliked?
    3. What did you learn from this novel that you didn't know before?
    4. How did you feel about Ester's "betrayal" of Rabbi Mendes? She finds it almost impossible to forgive herself; did you, as a reader, feel the same way?
    5. Was the suggestion that Ester might be Shakespeare's granddaughter an interesting twist to the story, or an addition that stretched credibility too far?
    6. How did you feel about Helen as a character? Aaron wonders why she chose to study Jewish history; what you do think her motivation is?
    7. What did you think about reading the plague chapters of the novel during our current pandemic situation? Were there any interesting echoes or contrasts?
    8. Does Ester get a "happy ending"? Is one even possible for her?
    9. What do you think will linger in your memory about this novel?

    I'll post my own answers a bit later today or tomorrow.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Thanks for a really interesting set of questions @Trudy.

    1. Which of the two stories did you find more engaging -- Ester's story from the past, or the contemporary story of Helen, Aaron, and the documents?
    I actually found the swapping between stories really annoying. I thought there was the potential for two very different and very absorbing novels here, but the mash up between them detracted from both for me. Because of the swapping I felt each story wasn't properly developed. I thought there was far more to the Helen and Dror story than we got to find out about for a start. I think I preferred the Ester strand.

    2. Who was your favourite character? Why? Were there characters you actively disliked? Although they didn't feature a great deal I really liked the Patricia's. Probably because I'm a retired librarian and I liked the fact that the stern librarian trope was subverted by the end. I also liked Rivka, a convincing character who I hope had an easier life in the end.

    3. What did you learn from this novel that you didn't know before?
    I didn't know anything about there being a large Sephardic community in Amsterdam, so I found that interesting.

    4. How did you feel about Ester's "betrayal" of Rabbi Mendes? She finds it almost impossible to forgive herself; did you, as a reader, feel the same way?
    I felt Ester had nothing to forgive herself for, other than misleading the Rabbi into spending a lot of time wondering about a non existent crisis. In many ways she was doing him a kindness as he needed something to focus his learning on, and she provided it for him. I must admit I skimmed a lot of this part, so may well have mis-understood why she thought she had betrayed him.

    5. Was the suggestion that Ester might be Shakespeare's granddaughter an interesting twist to the story, or an addition that stretched credibility too far?
    I felt that Kadish had come up with loads of ideas for stories and had tried to shoe-horn them all into one book. This was the most obvious one, but Aaron and Marissa(?) was another under-played story.

    6. How did you feel about Helen as a character? Aaron wonders why she chose to study Jewish history; what you do think her motivation is?
    Helen seemed to have studied Jewish history as a way to keep close to her love of Dror, though she must have had an interest in the topic to have gone to Israel as a volunteer in the first place. I did notice in several places she didn't sound very English, the use of the word faucet for instance. I did like her spikiness, and totally sympathised about the casual sexism of the other male academics.

    7. What did you think about reading the plague chapters of the novel during our current pandemic situation? Were there any interesting echoes or contrasts?
    I thought this was well realised, the social distancing, the recklessness of Mary, the not knowing if you would be next.

    8. Does Ester get a "happy ending"? Is one even possible for her?
    I think it would have been interesting if Ester had married Manuel and had children. To me it sounded a happy ending. She was married to a sympathetic man, and had a lovely house in Richmond.

    9. What do you think will linger in your memory about this novel?
    The house in Richmond, I want it!

    What did people think of the actors? I can imagine the play and the playhouse, but I'm not sure those three would have all become actors or that they would have latched unto Mary and Ester.

  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    1. Which of the two stories did you find more engaging -- Ester's story from the past, or the contemporary story of Helen, Aaron, and the documents?
    Early on I couldn’t wait to get back to the modern story. Then I became engaged with Ester’s story and found the present day to be intrusive. At times the author seemed to realize that there needed to be imbalance between the lengths of the sections to help move the stories along.
    2. Who was your favourite character? Why? Were there characters you actively disliked?
    Aaron was my favourite character because I was once a young history graduate student. I despised Bescos.
    3. What did you learn from this novel that you didn't know before?
    Greater insight into the London Jewish community at the time of the plague. The founders of the Saint John Jewish community came from this Sephardic community.
    4. How did you feel about Ester's "betrayal" of Rabbi Mendes? She finds it almost impossible to forgive herself; did you, as a reader, feel the same way?
    Ester’s “betrayal was justified in my eyes. It was the only way she could escape the misogyny of that age. It also provided the rabbi with the opportunity to teach and clarify his thoughts.
    5. Was the suggestion that Ester might be Shakespeare's granddaughter an interesting twist to the story, or an addition that stretched credibility too far?
    Interesting thought that was foreshadowed in Aaron’s research.
    6. How did you feel about Helen as a character? Aaron wonders why she chose to study Jewish history; what you do think her motivation is? Helen grew on me with time. She begins to be humanized when we learn about her relationship with Dror.
    7. What did you think about reading the plague chapters of the novel during our current pandemic situation? Were there any interesting echoes or contrasts?
    Yes, reading the plague chapters now provided empathy. I have also recently finished reading a history of the Spanish Flu pandemic.
    8. Does Ester get a "happy ending"? Is one even possible for her?
    It was the happiest ending possible for her under the circumstances.
    9. What do you think will linger in your memory about this novel?
    The fact it was the best novel I have read in a long time. I started reading slower when I was 100 pages from the end because I did not want it to end.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    edited April 2020
    1. Which of the two stories did you find more engaging -- Ester's story from the past, or the contemporary story of Helen, Aaron, and the documents?
    At first I was more interested in Ester's story, but warmed up to Helen and Aaron's story as we got to know them and their motivations better.

    2. Who was your favourite character? Why? Were there characters you actively disliked?
    I liked Ester and her journey and also Rivka. I was glad Rivka got to come out of the background a bit at the end and be more appreciated by the Ester and her household.

    I warmed up to Aaron eventually, but found it really annoying that he assumed every young woman had a thing for him and that he could even charm the Patricias, just because he was good looking and charismatic and used to attracting lots of women. Pretty sure Helen and the Patricias saw straight through him and even the young woman who helped him at the archives seemed to like him enough to help (though that was her job), but probably wasn't looking for a relationship with him!

    3. What did you learn from this novel that you didn't know before?
    I learnt more about the Jewish community in Amsterdam. I knew most of the English history.

    4. How did you feel about Ester's "betrayal" of Rabbi Mendes? She finds it almost impossible to forgive herself; did you, as a reader, feel the same way?
    From an outsider point of view there was nothing to forgive, but we often judge ourselves more harshly than we judge others. Rabbi Mendes had taken Ester and her brother in when nobody else wanted to deal with them and gave Ester educational opportunities and the chance to continue learning that nobody else could have given her, so she felt very indebted to him and guilty for lying. It was interesting that she hid his confession of denying his faith during the inquisition from outsiders he wanted to confess to in letter.

    5. Was the suggestion that Ester might be Shakespeare's granddaughter an interesting twist to the story, or an addition that stretched credibility too far?
    I felt it did stretch credibility, but still enjoyed the twist.

    6. How did you feel about Helen as a character? Aaron wonders why she chose to study Jewish history; what you do think her motivation is?
    I liked Helen once we got to know her. Her short-lived, but always regretted, relationship with Dror was her motivation to study Jewish history. I found it interesting that she was still stuck on him for so many years and still idealised the relationship. I'm not sure if someone like Helen in real life would be so Hollywood about romantic relationships - assuming it would have been happy ever after if she had stayed, when she and Dror had only been a couple for a very short time and at a young age.

    I agree that she didn't always come across as quite English, rather as an American author visualised a middle aged English academic. I found the UK/US stereotypes a bit annoying. I lived in England a short while and have lots of friends there and know quite a few people from the US and never found there was a really a big difference in how people relate to each other that could be pinpointed to country of origin in such a stereotypical way.

    7. What did you think about reading the plague chapters of the novel during our current pandemic situation? Were there any interesting echoes or contrasts?

    I could really relate to the fear of going out shopping and shopkeepers not wanting close contact with customers as well as the different reactions of the characters to being stuck indoors. We've all seen a Mary going crazy stuck inside and a Rivka getting by with household routines on social media. (though we in Australia are lucky so far with how early things were caught so there hasn't been as big a risk as some countries, but we're still in social isolation).

    8. Does Ester get a "happy ending"? Is one even possible for her?
    Ester got her heart broken by John, but again she may not have had a happier life with him if things had worked out. Alvaro was a caring husband, she was wealthy, has a lovely house, servants to look after it and could pursue her studies, so that seemed like a pretty good life overall, though I'm sure we all hope to live past 51 and not die from a fever if we can avoid it.

    9. What do you think will linger in your memory about this novel?
    The current pandemic most likely if I reread it in the future. I will relate it to this strange and historic time we are living through.

    Overall despite a few criticisms I really enjoyed the book and have ordered a paper copy to be sent to my mum for Australian Mothers' Day on 10th May. She was brought up believing to be descended from a Jewish family of Brights who were clock makers and jewellers in England, so has always been interested in Jewish history and culture. Though subsequently I found out that although my Great Great grandfather was a Bright and was a successful jeweller and clock maker and also lived in suburbs in Melbourne with prominent Jewish communities, our Brights were Methodists from Devon! The Jewish Brights (from Yorkshire and Sheffield) were very interesting though, and researching their family history meant I was already familiar with a lot of the history of Jewish people in the Spanish Inquisition and in England of this time which helped me understand and enjoy this book more. I did learn a lot from studying history at University, but going on tangents from true and mythical family history has been very interesting too. Still not sure how the myth of our Jewish ancestry came about or why though.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    To reply to my own questions:
    1. Which of the two stories did you find more engaging -- Ester's story from the past, or the contemporary story of Helen, Aaron, and the documents?

    With these types of stories I always find the historical story more interesting, and I definitely remembered more of Ester's story than Helen & Aaron's from when I first read it a couple of years ago, but on the reread I did enjoy the researchers' story too. I always love stories that touch on the petty power struggles of academia.
    2. Who was your favourite character? Why? Were there characters you actively disliked?

    I loved Ester, and also the rabbi and (eventually) Rivka. In the modern-day story, I think we were supposed to find Aaron shallow and annoying at the beginning, as Helen does, and I do think he grew as the story went on. I go back and forth on Helen, both times I read this book. I admire her scholarship and her determination, and feel sorry for how emotionally barren her life seems to have been. I'm not a huge fan of that literary trope where a person has One True Love and totally shuts down her emotional life for decades after that, because I think most of the time, real people don't work that way.
    3. What did you learn from this novel that you didn't know before?

    So much about the Jewish community in England at that time, which I found really interesting and had known very little about before reading this book.
    4. How did you feel about Ester's "betrayal" of Rabbi Mendes? She finds it almost impossible to forgive herself; did you, as a reader, feel the same way?

    I understand absolutely why she did it, but also why she felt so guilty. She owed everything to this man, and she lied to him and disobeyed him and used the learning he had given her to pursue ideas that were the opposite of everything he taught. Her guilt was totally understandable to me even though I wished she could feel free of it.
    5. Was the suggestion that Ester might be Shakespeare's granddaughter an interesting twist to the story, or an addition that stretched credibility too far?

    It was an interesting twist that wasn't totally outside the realm of possibility -- if you believe Shakespeare's Dark Lady was a real person, she could have as easily been a Portuguese Jew as anyone else. But it felt a little extraneous to the story. Somewhere (I think in some of the back matter at the end of the book) Kadish talks about how one of the things that sparked this novel for her was Virginia Woolf's question about what would have happened to a hypothetical sister of Shakepeare, who was just as talented as he was. That led Kadish into exploring the roles available for intellectually gifted women in that time period, which obviously got woven into the story she wanted to tell about Jewish history in that period. Bringing it back around to Shakespeare again feels just a little too neat, for me.
    6. How did you feel about Helen as a character? Aaron wonders why she chose to study Jewish history; what you do think her motivation is?

    I've touched on the question of Helen's character above. In some ways I feel like her motivation isn't as well developed as it could be. We don't really ever learn why she chose to go to Israel as a young woman, and it seems a stretch, to me, that her brief time there and her brief affair with Dror would have cast such a large shadow over her whole academic life. I think Helen needs more backstory (outside of her time in Israel and her relationship with Dror) to really flesh out her character, and there just wasn't space in the book to do it.

    I didn't notice the inaccuracies in her portrayal as an Englishwoman the way others did, not being English myself, but I'm sure American writers make those kinds of mistakes all the time.
    7. What did you think about reading the plague chapters of the novel during our current pandemic situation? Were there any interesting echoes or contrasts?

    I don't really recall being struck strongly by the plague chapters when I first read the book but of course they landed very differently now. Glad we don't still carry the dead through the streets on plague carts; glad we have hopes of better treatments and, eventually, vaccines today, rather than just accepting plagues as an unhappy fate. But some parts really resonated -- the description of London's empty streets, the effects of staying in the house or recklessly going out, as others have mentioned. The description of Rivka having to go to three bakeries before she could find one that was open -- the difficulty of obtaining everyday supplies is still with us in the current situation (though hopefully with fewer rats). People shrinking away "as though they'd long since learned that death was in other people."
    8. Does Ester get a "happy ending"? Is one even possible for her?

    I think she gets the happiest ending possible under the circumstances. She doesn't get a husband who loves her romantically and sexually, which obviously would have been a nice bonus, but she gets what I think mattered more to her: the protection of a husband who would allow her to continue her study and writing. It was MUCH better than the life she could have had with Manuel, who had made it clear she would have to stop reading and writing if she married him, and there was no real indication that even John would have allowed her the freedom that Alvaro did. She and Alvaro had a good partnership and friendship, which was sweet, and was one of the few circumstances in which Ester could have carried on the kind of intellectual life she wanted. I loved that he fully supported her in that. It was too bad that Alvaro got a long-term lover (Richard?) and Ester never had any romantic or sexual attachment after John -- it would have been nice if she could have had a good hearty fling with the gardener or something, which I'm sure Alvaro would have been fine with. But in the end I think her studies mattered most to Ester. I loved the scene with Alvaro teaching her to swim. I do agree with @Mili that from my current perspective, dying of fever at 51 seems a bit harsh, but was probably considered not bad for the era.

    It was sad that she wasn't able to find any other intellectual companionship among other educated women of her time -- the references to her going to some of the London coffeehouses but feeling out of place there were believable but sad, because there were women of the time who were able to defy those limitations, to read and discuss ideas and even write, but they were few and far between. Ester's Jewishness, and her background of poverty and being an outsider -- even if she was well-off in her married life -- made it too difficult for her to ever fit into those circles, I guess.
    9. What do you think will linger in your memory about this novel?

    Since this was a reread for me, I know the answer absolutely: the strongest emotion I had after finishing this book, and what still lingers with me after all this time, was pure, absolute RAGE on behalf of women like Ester. All the brilliant, talented, potential scholars and writers and thinkers who never had the chance to pursue their gifts simply because of gender (especially when compounded with other factors like class, race, religion). How many gifted people have just been ignored and thrown away by society because they haven't fit into the mold we expect of gifted people (which until recently was almost exclusively male, and even now still excludes a lot of people). It's a beautiful book that I loved reading and found profoundly moving, but it also left me very angry about history.



  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I don't think I loved this book as much as you @Trudy , but I totally agree about all those brilliant people who were ignored because they weren't white, male and wealthy.
    I do wish she had thought of writing it as two books. One the story of Ester and the other the story of Helen where she could have developed the latter's story more and we could have had a wonderful chapter where she and Aaron debunked the theories of the smug sexist Brian and the rest of the history department. I also think she could then have made Helen American as I think she might have been able to give her more depth. Not that I don't think that you can't write about someone from a different country to your own, just that it is much trickier to do so.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    I have just realised that although I wrote this a few days ago, I forgot to post it! I very much enjoyed the book, and felt that the two stories melded well together and gave each other depth - it would have been a lesser book if only one tale had been told.

    1. Which of the two stories did you find more engaging -- Ester's story from the past, or the contemporary story of Helen, Aaron, and the documents?
    Since I am a historian, female, of a certain age, I found Helen a particularly interesting character – and the academic rivalry only slightly overdone. But I also found Ester’s story compelling and fascinating. The way she had to fight to have any sort of intellectual life was tragic – and all too common for women, and some men. Such a loss of talent through the ages! I remember the start of the Open University in UK and the way such a lot of pent-up ambition and ability was released on its courses; Educating Rita was very true to life in many ways.

    3. What did you learn from this novel that you didn't know before?
    I knew very little about Jewish life in London in the 17th century, and hadn’t realised that there was a converso community before Cromwell allowed Jews to live openly. I did know about academic rivalries!

    4. How did you feel about Ester's "betrayal" of Rabbi Mendes? She finds it almost impossible to forgive herself; did you, as a reader, feel the same way?
    I’m not sure it really is a betrayal, she gives him a chance to expound his views on paper which he might not have otherwise. And I find her manoeuvre to keep involved in the intellectual life entirely forgivable.

    5. Was the suggestion that Ester might be Shakespeare's granddaughter an interesting twist to the story, or an addition that stretched credibility too far?
    Amusing, but a stretch too far

    6. How did you feel about Helen as a character? Aaron wonders why she chose to study Jewish history; what you do think her motivation is?
    She’s prickly, but academic life can be tough and so it’s very understandable – much of it is a carapace for protection. I enjoyed the academic rivalry (personally I have not been in the middle of anything as acrimonious, but I have witnessed it). I found myself liking Helen, especially as her vulnerabilities were revealed. I felt her frustration with the librarians and archivists – I usually have good relationships with librarians, but I have come across some particularly possessive ones! But ultimately they’re on the same side – especially against the bean counters. Her motivation for studying Jewish history I did find a bit of a puzzle; in general I believe anyone should be able to study and research anyone’s history, but moving into an area with which you have little connection, especially the history of a minority group, can lead to difficulties in practice. I assume it was to maintain some sort of emotional link with Dror and her kibbutz history.

    7. What did you think about reading the plague chapters of the novel during our current pandemic situation? Were there any interesting echoes or contrasts?
    Really interesting comparison with the present – and wasn’t the isolation so much more profound. No internet, phone and Skype for them. But the social distancing in the streets, the quarantine, the leaving of parcels on the doorstep – much is the same.

    8. Does Ester get a "happy ending"? Is one even possible for her?
    She gets, I feel, a reasonably happy ending, certainly better than many of the other possibilities. Contentment, perhaps would be a better description. She is at least safe and protected, Alvaro seems to like her and treat her well, and she gets intellectual satisfaction.


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