Tuesday, October 4, 2011

CBR III Review #21 - The Ghost of Hannah Mendes by Naomi Ragen

"Fight the degradation of your cultures, of your environment, of your nation and your community.
Dust off the jewels in the attic, shake out the skeletons – stare them in the face.
Stop being afraid."

The Ghost of Hannah Mendes tells the story of three Sephardic women (sort of four, but Janice is really more of an afterthought than a primary character) searching for the past and how to apply it to the future.  Catherine da Costa, a wealthy Manhattan Jew, is nearing the end of her life and realizes she has not passed on the cultural traditions that have made the family what it is today.  Her daughter, Janice, and two granddaughters, Francesca and Suzanne Abraham, do not practice the faith, do not appreciate their familial ties, and are completely disconnected from the history of their family.  Catherine decides to change this, motivated by visitations from the spirit of her ancestor, Hannah Mendes (who goes by several names in the course of the book, all historically accurate as far as I am aware).  She sends her granddaughters on a mission to Europe to locate the rest of Hannah's memoirs, a priceless heirloom missing from the family for generations.  

Both girls are a far cry from their ancestors power and family loyalty.  Suzanne is a stunning vegetarian do gooder who works for a rape crisis center and is perpetually broke.  She doesn't believe the past is relevant to the present and keeps a distance from her family.  Francesca is a petite type A overachiever, with a desire to have the things in life she thinks she should and an intense need to control things.  Once Catherine gets them to Europe, however, things start to change for all three women as they learn more about their family through Hannah's memoirs - discovering her life during the Spanish Inquisition.  The women have a great deal to learn about their religion, their roots, and themselves.

Naturally, there are two romantic subplots, because why not?  It's also one of Catherine's goals not to let the family tree die off, and her two single granddaughters are an obstacle to that.  They meet lovely Jewish men that fit their needs almost immediately upon arriving in London, and the way those plotlines resolve will surprise nobody.

What IS surprising, and enjoyable, is watching the women grow in the light of each new section of memoir they discover.  The book is broken up by excerpts from other texts (historical fiction, as far as I am aware) that teach them, and the reader, more about Hannah and what happened during those bloody years of the Inquisition.  It's a really fascinating read, especially from the perspective of a no-longer practicing Catholic.  I learned a lot about Judaism, and felt a lot of connection to the history within my own faith as well, even though I no longer practice.

This is a really great read and I highly recommend it!

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