DISOBEDIENCE by Naomi Alderman
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.