Multiple Women, Three Centuries, One Far-Reaching New Novel

By Anna Solomon

Each year at Purim, Jews recount the story of Esther, the Jewish orphan who rose to the throne of Persia and interceded with her husband to save her people from annihilation. In synagogue children’s pageants, Esther’s royal marriage is framed as a Cinderella story, but the biblical account is less family-friendly: Esther is chosen to replace the disgraced queen Vashti, who refused a royal command to parade — naked, some scholars argue — before a company of drunken men.

“The Book of V.,” the engrossing, highly readable, darkly sexy third novel by Anna Solomon, interweaves the story of Esther and Vashti with those of two other women: Lily, a 40-something wife and mother in contemporary Brooklyn, and Vee, a young senator’s wife in Watergate-era Washington.

Vee is a 20th-century Vashti. When, at a boozy house party in Georgetown, her husband asks her to undress in front of a group of Washington power brokers, Vee refuses — and, like Vashti, is banished. Solomon works hard to make this plot turn believable. That she doesn’t entirely succeed is almost incidental; readers who know their Bible will see what she is up to, and happily suspend disbelief. Vee’s second act — she reconnects with an old friend whose own marriage is coming apart — leads eventually to Lily, the emotional center of this transporting novel.

Lily is a frustrated writer, a stay-at-home mom who feels caught between the ideals of her feminist mother, Ruth (“I hope it fulfills you, taking care of children all the time,” Ruth offers dryly), and the lofty standard of parenting embraced in Park Slope, with its “river of other women and strollers and children on Eighth Avenue, headed to this school or that, or home from school, or to laundromats or piano lessons or nit-pickers or playdates.”

Lily’s interactions with these women — with all women — are fraught with merciless self-assessment. A second wife, she feels dwarfed even by her predecessor — yet another Vashti — who left her marriage to pursue a career “running off to war-torn places” with an international NGO. (“She didn’t want to be a wife,” says the man they both married, an earnest type who dreams of starting an aquaculture project in a Rwandan refugee camp.) Though she loves her husband and children, Lily can’t shake the feeling that she “has not become the type of woman she was supposed to become.”

Solomon is a truth teller. Her observations of domestic life — rote marital sex, the steady drip of compromise, the sine wave of intimacy and irritation — are unfailingly sharp. She has a way of locating the revelatory moment, as when Lily tries to seduce her husband with a romantic dinner. “Did you forget I don’t like olives?” he asks, unsexily picking them out of the puttanesca. “That’s more laundry,” Lily thinks when he wipes his fingers on the cloth napkin.

The novel takes a turn when Ruth dies of lung cancer, leaving Lily to uncover surprising truths about her mother’s life. In the end, the three narratives converge satisfyingly, and it is in telling the story of Vashti that Lily the writer finds her voice.

“The Book of V.” is a meditation on female power and powerlessness, the stories told about women and the ones we tell about and to ourselves. Solomon is interested in mythmaking, which stories take root in the popular imagination and which are redacted or simply lost. In her telling it is Vashti, not Esther, who saves the Jews, though she understands that her role will be forgotten. “It’s not her story they want, of course,” Vashti muses. “She is only the queen who is banished so their part could begin.”

The article was originally published by Newyorktimes