Rachel & Leah” follows “Rebekah” in Card’s “Women of Genesis” series, where the story segues into Jacob’s flight from Esau’s wrath over the usurpation of the birthright. Jacob seeks refuge in his Uncle Laban’s camp where he meets Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah. And thus this story unfolds to center on these four important women in the Genesis whose lives would intertwine each other and around one man, Jacob.
Author : Orson Scott Card
First Publication Date : 2004
First Publisher : Shadow Mountain
This Edition’s Publication Date : November 29, 2005 (Mass Market Paperback)
This Edition’s Publisher : Forge Books
No. of pages : 368
The Story :
Leah is the myopic eldest daughter of Rebekah’s brother, Laban. Her acute nearsighted condition limits her participation in the normal, everyday life of a pastoral camp. Leah’s greatest desire is to know her purpose and worth. She believes that God’s purpose for her is in the Scriptures, God’s Words. She reveals to Jacob her desire to study the Holy Writings. Jacob readily teaches her to read and write in preparation for understanding the Holy Scriptures. However her perceptual infirmity forces her to rely increasingly on her handmaid, Bilhah, who undertakes the same tasks of reading and copying the Scriptures for posterity. In the daily reading and writing exercises, Leah becomes secretly enamored of Jacob.
Rachel, the youngest daughter of Laban, is known as the beauty of the family. It is she whom Jacob falls in love with when he spies her at the well. He contracts with Laban for the hand of Rachel in return for his service as a bondsman for seven years.
Bilhah, Leah’s handmaid, is orphaned before she comes into Laban’s household. She is not a slave but a free woman. Although free in name, she still serves the family to earn her place. Thus, Bilhah’s confused stature earns her a chip on her shoulder. She makes a very impatient handmaid to Leah so later she is given over to Rachel instead. She becomes adept in reading and writing, so Jacob gives her the task (enviable to Leah) of copying the Holy Scriptures.
Zilpah is born in Laban’s camp as a bondservant. A flirt and an opportunist, Zilpah has the ambition of bettering her life and status. She assesses correctly that her future will hold nothing should she stay forever in Laban’s camp. Thus, she plans to attach herself to those who can take her away from it. An opportunity arises when she makes herself indispensable to Leah and thus, becomes her handmaid. Also, she tells Jacob of Laban’s sons’ plot to kill him, raising her trustworthiness in Jacob’s eyes.
All four women are drawn inexorably to Jacob. As per the Biblical story, Jacob completes his seven-year servitude to Laban and prepares to wed Rachel. Rachel, in her seven-year “engagement” to Jacob, had not thought much about marriage and what it truly entails. Her ignorance sends her in a serious panic and suddenly she cannot bear to marry Jacob nor any man for that matter. In Hebrew culture where honor and pride is paramount, Laban must think of a way to honor his commitment to Jacob and at the same time, address his daughter’s emotional stress and her well-being. What follows is exactly what happens in the Bible, but with the author’s own, very creative twist of how these historical events happen to be so.
The Review :
In this novel, Card has to flesh out the characters of four women. And he does this best with Leah who slowly grows in character as the book progresses. The other three aren’t as developed but it is interesting to notice the dynamics between the four of them, with Jacob somehow drawing them together as the story progresses.
As in “Rebekah“, the author also takes an interest in his male characters and pays the central ones very good attention. Jacob is a born leader, quiet and gentle but with a natural charisma that endears him to many. Laban is a loving father who treasures his daughters and would do anything possible to make them happy.
For a male author, it must have been a challenge to have to draw four different female personalities and get into their psyches. However, Card does quite a good job of it, as mirrored in this excerpt from his Rachel character who reacts with these thoughts to Jacob’s statement, “…compared to women, everything is easy..” :
“…Whatever it was that men imagined about women, they did not change their minds just because a woman disagreed. Father was that way, and every other man Rachel had talked to in the camp. It’s as if they thought that women were conducting a vast conspiracy to deceive men and make their lives difficult, so that anything a woman might say to simplify things had to be an attempt at deception.
If only men would listen to us, they’d find out that each one of us is different, and we’re eager to teach you how to understand us. But I can’t tell you how to understand Leah–I don’t understand her either. And if you did understand her, poor foolish man, you would think that you then understood all the rest of us, and you’d be hopelessly wrong. No wonder you despair of understanding women. The best you could ever hope for would be to understand one woman. And that’s the goal none of you ever seems to try for.” — pp. 198-199
Orson Scott Card likes to put his own philosophies within his characters’ dialogues and ruminations; some make interesting food for thought.
To Read Or Not To Read :
For those who think this is a religious book, it is not. It is simply a fictional adaptation of a Biblical story, the framework of which is used as the plot but the richness of detail and characterization are from the author’s deep well of imagination. What makes it equally worthy of attention is the fact that the story evolves from the perspective of women mentioned but otherwise not conferred with much importance in the Bible as the men were. Given the limited power Hebrew women had at the time of Jacob, it is quite engaging to note how these women employ ways to circumvent male dominance to get their way.
At the end of the novel, the author notes that this book is only the first of a series on these four women and Jacob. Card states: “…the story has four very strong female characters who needed separate development..” Thus, this story will perhaps be broken down into a series of books, the number of which has not been specified. Currently, he is working on “The Wives of Israel“, the sequel without an established release date yet as of the moment.
It has been five years since “Rachel & Leah” ‘s publication date. If you’re willing to wait, pick up this book and be treated to a good imaginative version of half the Biblical story. While only half the story, the conclusion is still pretty well tied off despite its broad hint of a sequel.
In A Nutshell :
Although not as great as Card’s earlier “Women of Genesis” books, namely “Sarah” and “Rebekah“, “Rachel and Leah” isn’t very far off the good writing mark either (considering it is only half or maybe even one-fourth of the whole story). With its solid characters and Card’s sharp insight into the female mind, the novel takes a good second place to his earlier ones in the Genesis series.
My Mark : Very, Very Good