Sue Monk Kidd imagines Jesus with a strong-willed wife

The Book of Longings offers a rare glimpse into the interior lives of women in the biblical world.

Readers of biblical historical fiction carry vastly different expectations—often unknowingly—when it comes to the author’s responsibility to the biblical text. Some wish to live more deeply within the historical world of the Bible while remaining inside familiar narrative and theological lines (whatever those might be). Others expect the novel to disturb, challenge, and subvert their presumptions. After all, if Jesus came to destabilize the familiar, perhaps that’s what literature about Jesus should do as well. Both of these types of preconceptions can be seen in the critical reviews of Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel.

The Book of Longings tells the story of Ana: daughter of Herod Antipas’s head scribe, sister of Judas Iscariot—and wife of Jesus of Nazareth. Ana harbors a secret longing to be a writer. The book follows her from the mosaic floors of Sepphoris to the crumbling village of Nazareth to the shining streets of Alexandria. In each location she struggles to find a place for her writing amidst her other callings as friend and wife, home-keeper and child-carrier, muse and hermit. Along the way, Ana participates in many familiar moments from the Bible: she is baptized along with Jesus in the Jordan, she tends to a wounded friend with the help of a kind Samaritan, she is welcomed into the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and she dabs at Jesus’ bloodied face when he falls on his way to Golgotha.

Conservative readers of the Bible are likely to find the insertion of a self-confident wife into the story of Jesus rather appalling. But a survey of Goodreads (where, with nearly 15,000 ratings, the book hovers at 4.3 stars) and the New York Times best-seller list (where the book happily perched for several weeks) reveals that most readers are gobbling up the book.