book review: Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

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DISOBEDIENCE by Naomi Alderman
★★☆☆☆
Penguin, 2007

For the most part I enjoyed reading Disobedience, but it’s one of those books that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts. I was having a hard time putting my finger on what exactly was working for me about this, because when I started to pick it apart, I realized there wasn’t a whole lot to praise. It wasn’t the writing, certainly, which I found rather sophomoric (more on that in a minute); it wasn’t the plot, which was quite paint-by-numbers; and it wasn’t the characters, who were pretty flat archetypes and essentially just mouthpieces for Alderman’s ideas, completely with stilted dialogue that doesn’t even begin to resemble how real human beings converse. But it was something, I guess, because it had a very readable quality to it and I certainly wouldn’t dissuade others from checking it out.

I think if I had to choose the one thing that really stood out to me about this novel, it was the setting. It takes place in an Orthodox Jewish community in London, and focuses on the romance between Ronit (the rebellious, wayward daughter of a renowned Rabbi who’s recently died) and Esti (the submissive, conservative housewife who’s miserable from deeply internalizing religious doctrine). While neither of these characters felt as fleshed out as they could be, what did feel very rich and textured for me was each of their relationships with Judaism; this community did feel very real to me and the sermons which began each chapter were an effective tool for immersing the reader in these characters’ ideologies.

I haven’t yet read Alderman’s Women’s Prize-winning novel The Power, which received a lot of critical praise but which is not particularly adored among my circle of reader friends. I still intend to read The Power, but if the writing style is anything like it was in Disobedience, I think I’m beginning to understand the criticism. There were some individual sentences in here which I highlighted because I thought they were striking, but there were even more which caused me to roll my eyes, if only because Alderman has a habit of repeating the same words and phrases and ideas ad nauseum. On a sentence-by-sentence example, let’s take this:

Far away, very very far away, I made a sleek black telephone on a pale wood desk ring.

I thought okay, that’s an interesting way to describe making a phone call. But then Alderman does the exact same thing again:

I dialed the number and, a quarter of the way across the world, I made a British number appear on a black telephone on a blond-wood desk.

This whole book had a circuitous nature to it, where it felt like Alderman was taking the longest possible way to make a simple point. On the more thematic level, we’re frankly bashed over the head with Alderman’s pontifications on man’s capacity for disobedience, and the societal expectation of silencing women. It’s not that I disagree with anything that she’s saying – in fact, several of these points I did find rather stimulating to mull over – but when you use the word ‘silence’ a grand total of sixty-six times in your novel, maybe you should consider that you’re laying it on a bit heavy.

And then there’s the ending – admittedly this critique is tied up inextricably in my personal preferences, but if there’s one kind of ending I cannot stand, especially in literary fiction, it’s when everything is wrapped up neatly in a nice bow; all conflicts resolved and all character arcs completed. I think there’s something so dissatisfying about following characters on a journey through a novel and essentially being told ‘their story ends here, no need to think about this any further, everything’s fine’ at the end. I can’t tell you how much I hate that. Coupled with the downright corny resolution, I did not finish Disobedience on a high.

So, I don’t know. It started around 4 stars for me, dropped to 3 stars somewhere in the middle when the repetition got to be a bit much, and ended up around 2 because of how much I hated the ending. But I didn’t hate this book, I just didn’t think it lived up to its potential. Solidly 2.5 for me – I may reevaluate and change to 3 later.

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18 thoughts on “book review: Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

  1. Having read The Power, but not this, it sounds as though her style is fairly consistent. I also found her very heavy handed thematically, and essentially thought that everything (characters, writing, plot) felt flat and subdued, which is a shame considering how much potential they all held.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks very much! I know there are those who dislike negative reviews on principle but I think they serve their purpose. Examining flaws can be fun too.

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  2. This is a brilliant review and it addresses all the niggling suspicions I have had about Alderman. I might still get to The Power at some point, but it is not a priority at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I still want to read The Power (actually ‘want’ is not the right word – more like ‘feel obligated to’) since I own it and I think I want to read all the Women’s Prize winners at some point, but my expectations are so laughably low right now. I kind of want to read it soon just to get it over with.

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      • I’m having a good reading year quantity-wise but quality-wise who knows. I feel like I’ve read very few books that will make my top 10 at the end of the year.

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      • I am currently tinkering with a “best of the year so far”-type post – and it is a bit rough. I mean, I only really loved two fiction books and one of those I didn’t even give five stars (The Pisces).

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      • Apparently I’ve given 13 five stars so far this year, but if these were going up against my top 10 from last year, very few would even be in contention. I don’t know if it’s taking more for books to wow me this year or if I’m just not reading the right ones.

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      • For me, writing my reviews has two effects: some books that I just thought were alright, gain an etxra star (from 3 to 4 most often, but also from 2 to 3) because my intellectual reaction is maybe different to my in the moment emotional reading reaction. But on the other side of the spectrum very few books get 5 stars anymore. But, yeah, my reading year has definitely been weird.

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      • I used to think I was stingy about giving 5 stars, but compared to so many of my reading friends I think I’m pretty lenient. But I do use my ‘favorites’ shelf on Goodreads much more sparingly and that’s how I track what’s going to be in consideration for my yearly favorites.

        I just counted all my star ratings for this year and apparently the most have been 4 stars. But I feel like I’ve been having a 3-star year so far. Hmm.

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  3. That’s a very peculiar style of writing and i haven’t seen it done a lot. It’s quite intriguing, and i usually enjoy reading it, unless it goes on forever and there’s no point to it.
    I still want to read her other book, Power, but the themes in this are quite fascinating as well.

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