Book Review: An Observant Wife by Naomi Ragen

Title: An Observant Wife
Author: Naomi Ragen
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: September 14, 2021
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In this rich and compassionate novel, An Observant Wife, Naomi Ragen continues the love story between newly observant California-girl Leah and ultra-Orthodox widower Yaakov from An Unorthodox Match.

From the joy of their wedding day surrounded by supportive friends and family, Yaakov and Leah are soon plunged into the complex reality of their new lives together as Yaakov leaves his beloved yeshiva to work in the city, and Leah confronts the often agonizing restrictions imposed by religious laws governing even the most intimate moments of their married lives. Adding to their difficulties is the hostility of some in the community who continue to view Leah as a dangerous interloper, questioning her sincerity and adherence to religious laws and spreading outrageous rumors. In the midst of their heartfelt attempts to reach a balance between their human needs and their spiritual obligations, the discovery of a secret, forbidden relationship between troubled teenage daughter Shaindele and a local boy precipitates a maelstrom of life-changing consequences for all. 

In An Unorthodox Match, we were introduced to Leah, a 30-something woman who turns to ultra-Orthodox Judaism after leading a mostly secular life, desperate for meaning and true connection to something greater than herself. As she enters the religious community of Boro Park in Brooklyn, she comes to care for a widowed man named Yaakov and his motherless children.

Here, in An Observant Wife, we follow Leah and Yaakov as the story continues with their wedding and early marriage. Leah has found true love with a good and kind man who loves her back, and she’s found fulfillment by becoming a mother to his young children, whom she loves unreservedly. She’s also made piece with his 17-year-old daugher Shaindele, who in the first book was set on sabotaging the relationship, but has now come to accept and even appreciate Leah’s innate goodness and the joy she’s brought back to their little family.

While Leah is committed to her family and to the complicated rules of behavior that come with with life in the religious community, the community does not truly accept her. Seemingly innocent moments get blown out of proportion and become the fodder for increasingly hostile gossip. When Shaindele is unwise and gets involved in a secret relationship with the black sheep son of a powerful family, the scandal can only be contained by agreeing to a harsh set of decrees from her school principle, but these in turn put Shaindele at risk. And when Leah and Yaakov take a stand to protect her, their entire way of life, as well as their family’s safety, is on the line.

Without going into detail, I will say that once again the author delivers an insider’s look into a world that feels like a completely alien culture. Even as someone raised in an observant Jewish household, I find this setting among the ultra-Orthodox startling and eye-opening. The rules governing every single moment of one’s life seem oppressive and often degrading to me, yet the author does an effective job of conveying how the people within the community find meaning and reinforcement of their faith by virtue of these guidelines for how to live a proper life.

The book perhaps spends too much time on introspection, as we follow the thoughts and feelings of not just Leah, but also Yaakov, Shaindele, and the family’s grandmother, Fruma Esther. It’s interesting to see how they deal with their lives and their religious obligations, but the plot can bog down when there are pages of contemplation and inner turmoil.

The plot takes some dramatic turns, and by the end, I was very invested in the characters’ well-being and their relationships. I did feel that the wrap-up was a little too neat and ideal, but the path to get there was certainly worthwhile.

Overall, An Observant Wife is a fascinating look into a world that can feel like a throwback to an earlier century for a 21st century reader, yet it’s set very much in the contemporary world of the ultra-Orthodox. I really came to care for the characters and could appreciate their devotion to their way of life, even while knowing that the religious elements that would absolute send me running in the other direction if they ever applied to my own life.

This book and An Unorthodox Match are both worth reading — the unusual setting and the memorable characters bring this world and its people to life.

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