Book Review: The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi

Beauty Queen of JerusalemFour generations of family traditions and doomed marriages form the heart of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, a family saga that takes place in the decades before, during, and after Israel’s war for independence.

Gabriela Siton is the youngest in a line of women belonging to the Ermosa family, a large Sephardic family — Jews of Spanish descent — living in Jerusalem, dealing with family secrets and turbulence during a time of war and upheaval in Israel itself.

The story opens with Gabriela’s mother’s death. Luna dies at a relatively young age from a deadly and fast-moving cancer, and Gabriela’s resulting grief is heavily laden with guilt. She and Luna had a fraught, difficult relationship all of Gabriela’s life, and she doesn’t quite know what to do with all of her emotions and the confusion she’s left with.

Bit by bit, over the course of the story, we hear more about the history of the Ermosa women. There’s the matriarch of the family, Mercada, who marries her beloved son off to a poverty-stricken orphan as punishment for his near-betrayal of his family. Mercada’s daughter-in-law, Rosa, faces life with a husband who doesn’t love her, a beloved brother who gets involved in the deadly underground movement leading up to independence, and three daughters — the oldest of whom is Luna. Luna is gorgeous, the most beautiful girl in Jerusalem, but with a selfish and combative personality. She’s prickly and self-centered, and she and Rosa never find a way to bond.

Later on, Gabriela is told that the curse of the Ermosa women is to marry men who don’t really love them, and that seems to be true in the three preceding generations. Each man is madly in love with a woman who isn’t appropriate or acceptable, and so marries out of obligation, leading to bitterness, lack of passion, and lack of respect.

In some ways, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem reminded me of Isabel Allende’s masterpiece, The House of the Spirits. Like The House of the Spirits, the blessings and curses of each generation seems to be passed along to the next, as each set of relationships is influenced by, or damaged by, the ones that came before. Likewise, The Beauty Queen of Jersusalem, while telling the tale of a particular family, is set against a backdrop of a significant historical era. The history of pre-state Israel and its struggle for independence form a big piece of the picture here, as the Ermosa family is caught up in the violence and upheavals that surround them.

The title of this book is a misnomer, and a pretty unfortunate one at that. Luna is known for her remarkable beauty, and is referred to as the beauty queen of Jerusalem — although not, as you might expect, because she actually competed in pageants or won competitions or anything. She’s just a woman who was known for her beauty and style. What’s more, the book isn’t exclusively, or even mainly about Luna — it’s about all of the women of her family. In fact, Luna is a mostly unlikeable character who’s a terrible mother and is mostly portrayed as being awful to her own mother. Things happen later in the book that make her a slightly more sympathetic character, but the bottom line is that she isn’t solely what the book is about, and it took me a while to get past the preconception that I had from the title in order to see the breadth of the story.

On the plus side, there are many vignettes in this sweeping story that are completely enchanting. Rosa’s story is fabulous, and you can’t help but feel compassion for a woman who’s struggled all her life and gotten little in return. The story of Rosa’s three daughters (including Luna) and how they each met the men they’d end up marrying is varied and textured. The Sephardic heritage of the family is described through their rituals, their use of Ladino phrases, and the little details about food and customs that bring a sense of vitality to their daily lives.

The Jerusalem setting is wonderful, with the city forming a vibrant stage for the family drama. The historical elements are skillfully woven into the story, so that the loves and struggles within the family are set against their worries about English police, bombings in the streets, sieges and rationing, and men serving at the front.

While overall I enjoyed the book, I did hit a few stumbling blocks. The biggest issue for me was the language, which often felt a bit clunky. The book is an English translation from the Hebrew, and I’m afraid that something truly was lost in translation. The writing just doesn’t always flow, and the dialogue and use of Ladino and Spanish phrases seem a bit jammed in, not organic. I have a feeling this issue might not be an issue if the book were read in the original Hebrew.

The other element that might be problematic for American readers is the assumption of familiarity with details of Israeli history. The book was written and published in Israel in 2013, released in English in the United States for the first time this year. It occasionally feels a bit like “inside baseball” — the book is written for an Israeli audience, and there’s an assumption of a common culture and background. For me, having spent time there and understanding the history and culture, it wasn’t an issue, but I can imagine that some readers will have a harder time understanding the context or getting the full picture of the historical elements woven into the story, or even being able to identify some of the names, politicians, and organization that are referred to throughout the book.

The perspective and organization of the book is somewhat puzzling. We begin with Gabriela’s first-person narration, but the storytelling shifts. Sometimes, it’s another family member telling Gabriela about incidents from the past, set out as a dialogue with Gabriela, with the story appearing in quotation marks. But at other times, it’s a third-person narrative, filling in the gaps and telling other pieces of the family story. The narrative jumps from one character’s perspective to anothers, and it can be jarring to sometimes see the world according to a character who hasn’t had a POV before. Time-wise, it’s confusing as well, as we get a description from Gabriela early on about her mother’s death, but as the story jumps back and forth for most of the book, it’s jarring when the last few chapters jump back to an adult Gabriela and how she reconciles her grief and anger.

At its core, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is a moving story of a complicated and messed-up family. I really enjoyed parts of the story, especially those pieces that delve more deeply into the complicated emotions and wounds of the many family members. Unfortunately, the awkward writing/translation and the narrative inconsistency make this book more difficult than it needs to be, and overall I think the plot could have used a bit more focus. Still, it’s worth reading for the intergenerational conflicts and dynamics, and I enjoyed the nuggets of history that form the backbone of the story.


The details:

Title: The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem
Author: Sarit Yishai-Levi
Publisher: Thomas Dunne
Publication date: April 5, 2016
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley