September 19, 2018
Is it possible that a novel can be beautifully written, expertly detailed, has multiple plot lines, has characters that are multi-faceted, -- yet still manage to garner only 3.5 stars? The answer is yes, as inexplicably accomplished in 'The Weight of Ink' by Rachel Kadish. Some authors write books for themselves, while others write books for an audience. A select few authors write books for both. In my estimation, this novel read as if the author wrote it more for herself, her whims, or perhaps as a passion project, and less so for a mass audience. There is nothing wrong with this approach of course, but in the case of 'The Weight of Ink', the total result was somewhat disappointing. I read the book in its entirety over a three week period and I'm sorry to say that although it is passable, it has nothing that will hold on to my heart or stick to my ribs days or weeks after.
Imagine for a moment, going to a fancy restaurant that promises a gourmand's feast of a spread with a variegated assortment of dishes that tempt the palette and loosen the tastes buds. With a grumbling tummy and your mouth watering, you greedily sit down, cut, and take a hearty bite out of the entree. To your disappointment, the fancy looking, expertly prepared, intricately plated dish in front of you turns out to be as bland as boiled chicken. Your heart plummets as you come to realize that not one dish out of an ocean of possibilities, was seasoned with salt, pepper, fresh herbs, spices and fresh garlic.
This unfortunately is how I would describe 'The Weight of Ink'. A novel that on the surface makes your book loving mouth water, yet later fills you up solely because your stomach needed filling, and your enjoyment of it turns out lackluster and placid. To further the analogy, If I could equate this book to a gourmet dish, I'd say it has no velvety sauce to accompany it's unseasoned boiled chicken of a story, no salt & pepper to bring about the flavor personality of it's boring heroines, and no fresh garlic and onions to sweetly permeate it's ineffective moral lesson of an aroma. Yes, like boiled chicken, 'The Weight of Ink' will fill you up, but you will not be sopping up the juices off your plate with a piece of bread, nor will you be licking your lips in enjoyment when done. Allow me to explain.
The novel tells the dual story of a 17th century Jewish scribe in England, Ester Velasquez, clawing her way into educating herself at a time when women were expected only to marry, be domestic, and birth babies. Ester is so fiendish - understandably so, in her desire to learn, she expresses sacrilegious musings and nurtures blasphemous thoughts, and betrays the blind Rabbi who takes her under his tutelage. Three hundred and fifty years later in 2001, an acerbic and soon to retire British historian battling a debilitating disease, Helen Watt, teams up with a caddish American graduate student, Aaron Levy, to translate and decipher the recently discovered documents left behind by Ester and the Rabbi. To tell the circuitous tale of how the writings came to be, the novel goes back and forth between the two time periods and narratives, both of which are centered in and around London.
At face value, this synopsis is provocative and eye catching. Right off the gates, the novel was slooooww moooovving, with Kadish employing an overly descriptive style to paint her atmosphere. This descriptive style did not bother me at first because it is a style of writing I genuinely appreciate. Within 150 pages however, I was dismayed to read that despite the buildup and all the literary flourish, there was still only a shell of a story. 200 pages in and there was still no character for me to fall in love with, and no engaging plot for me to sink my teeth into.
Admittedly, the writing that the author made ample use of is beautiful and scholarly, and the novel reads like a thoroughly researched history lesson. However, underneath this beautiful writing, was distracting inconsistency that at times forced me to take unwanted reading breaks. One chapter would be engaging and precise, moving the plot and characters along in a manageable pace. While the next chapter would be bloated and superfluous, stalling the progress of the story and giving me no reason to care for anyone on the page. I recall one instance when Kadish spent four and a half pages describing a refuse strewn cobblestone street that Ester was walking down. Four and a half pages that turned out to be an overdone, stalling jumble of too much details for such an inconsequential point. Exasperatingly, these pages did nothing for the book other than making me slightly annoyed and sleepy. To be clear, I love and appreciate when authors are descriptive and I love when authors write with a scholarly tone. However, too much of it will hinder a potentially good book's progress and muddle the entire story. Specifically, 'The Weight of Ink' has too many characters, too many subplots, and too many stories-within-a-story-within-a-story. All which tainted my enjoyment of what should have been a masterful historical novel for the ages.
Also to note, I did not at all mind that 'The Weight of Ink' was over 500 pages since I especially LOVE when novels delve deep and pass the 500 page mark. Somehow along the way however, Kadish spread herself too thin by dipping the book into too many pots and too many wide angles, resulting in a story that was long-winded without saying anything special or anything original. Throughout my reading, I felt a sense of ambivalence, never really caring about any of the characters most of the time. It was not until the story went into "life unfulfilled" territory for Ester Velasquez that my heart finally tugged. To clarify, I didn’t hate the characters, but Kadish did not write them in a way that made me ache for them or root for their successes. Ester, Helen, Aaron, and the rest were always at a distance, never close. As much as the writing in this novel is commendable, it was overdone and had no gratifying payoff. Like my analogy above, boiled chicken will fill you up, but think of how eating it will leave your mouth watering for a dish like Coq au Vin, Chicken Tika Masala, or Chicken Cacciatore. Why? Because these dishes have robust flavors, they have bite, and they have flavor personalities. Boiled chicken, not so much. As if I were eating boiled chicken, when I finished 'The Weight of Ink', I was glad I finally got through it and nothing more. No licking my lips, no gratifying finish. Just a full stomach.
One last point that lead to my overall disappointment of the book was the unfulfilled promise of answering the question: "What if William Shakespeare had an equally gifted sister?" This was one of the main reasons I selected this novel, and disappointingly, this answer ended up being only two paragraphs in the entire novel. Two paragraphs, in over 550 pages. THAT person is whose story I wanted to read about but it never came.
I read 'The Weight of Ink' cover to cover, did not skim any parts, and I honestly don't regret that I read it. Nevertheless, this is the type of book that many are likely to abandon 50, 100, or 150 pages in. If readers choose to abandon it without finishing it, I don't blame them and can understand why some would. If you care to know, I recommend this novel to readers who like non-spicy, muted, and lethargic plots that don't have an edge to them. Also, readers who are studying religion and or readers who would like to become librarians may also appreciate this book. I am neither of these types of readers so for everyone else like me, proceed to this novel with caution. I rate it 3.5 for Kadish's herculean effort in writing a literary work that is good, but not satisfying. She gave me boiled chicken, when I had hoped for Coq au Vin. Sigh.