Sue Monk Kidd imagines the life of Jesus in her latest...

Sue Monk Kidd imagines the life of Jesus in her latest novel "The Book of Longings." Credit: Tony Pearce

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking, 429 pp., $28)

There’s a lot we don’t know about the life of Jesus, arguably the most influential religious figure in history. Nothing was written about him until years after he died, so accounts of his life are to some degree works of the imagination. Now comes novelist Sue Monk Kidd with an audacious version of Jesus’s life. She gives him a wife. That’s right, a wife.

To state the obvious, there’s no mention of a wife in Jesus’ story in the Bible, and early Christian leaders worked to expunge the idea that women played a notable role in the church. Several novelists have speculated on the role women might have played in Jesus’ community, from Nikos Kazantzakis’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” to Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.”

But Kidd is a student of the feminine in Christian spirituality, and in Ana, the narrator and the young woman in “The Book of Longings” who loves Jesus, she seeks to create a character who embodies women’s fraught relationship with Christianity. A bestselling novelist (“The Secret Life of Bees”), Kidd also wants to tell a story people will read, and she uses the conventions of mainstream contemporary fiction — plot twists, coincidences, narrow escapes — to keep the reader turning the pages.

Ana is the daughter of the main scribe of Herod, the Jewish leader who will send Jesus to his death. She is wealthy, willful and smart. She fights with her mother. She has loyal women friends. She agonizes over whether having children would hobble her creative urges. In short, Ana is a typical women’s fiction heroine.  When she first meets Jesus, she is riveted by his gaze: “His eyes were the most remarkable thing about him. … There was a tiny fire in them, an expressiveness I could see even from where I stood. It was if his thoughts floated in the wet, dark light of them, wanting to be read.” Ana, 14 years old, appears to have a world-class crush.

Kidd uses the fact that not much is known about Jesus’ early years to fill in her account of the young couple’s life. But then Jesus is called to his mission, and Ana is left to hang with the in-laws back in Nazareth. Too bad. My own longing in this story was for more of Jesus. What inspired him? What drew people to him? What gave him the courage to face a horrible death?  

Some things Kidd does very well. She makes you see, hear and smell the world Jesus and Ana lived in — the baking sands, the smell of herbs, the sounds and sights of a humble village. Her secondary characters enliven the story, notably Judas, Jesus’ betrayer. Kidd makes him Ana’s brother, a zealot frustrated with Jesus’ refusal to stoke political revolution against the Romans. Judas personifies the frustrations that would boil over and contribute to Jesus’ death.

Despite its strengths, this novel is a forced marriage of mainstream storytelling with the triumphs and tragedies of Jesus’ life. E.L. Doctorow, a master of historical fiction, once said that “the historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” But you can’t feel it if it doesn’t seem real, and “The Book of Longings” is more the present imposed on the past than a true gateway into its mysteries.

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