I carried a 550-page book with me on vacation and loved every minute of it.
Rachel Kadish packs every page of The Weight of Ink, her third novel, with interesting facts, musings and revelations—and every ounce of the book was worth its weight on my shoulders as I hefted it around my 10-day excursion.
At the center of this yarn is Ester Valesquez, a young Jewish woman living in London in the seventeenth century. Ester is the scribe for a blind rabbi. Her writing becomes to a powerful reading habit as she rifles the bookstalls of London; then her own philosophical meanderings extend to letters to prominent philosophers of the age, including Spinoza. Scholar and historian Helen Watt and her young, brash assistant, Aaron Levy, unearth Ester’s story through a cache of documents found during a home renovation. Like any sweeping novel wanting to rivet women readers, these characters all have love interests, though Kadish’s attentions to love are never syrupy nor inspired by Hallmark or Harlequin. Rather they are profound meditations on the nature of what it means to be human. In one passage, Ester thinks:
How could desire be wrong—the question seized her—if each living being contained it? Each creature was born with the unthinking need to draw each next breath, find each next meal. Mustn’t desire then be integral—a set of essential guideposts on the map of life’s purpose? And mightn’t its very denial then be desecration?
Desire for Ester and Helen and even the Lothario, Aaron, is not only about sexuality and carnal pleasures—it is also about intellect and the desire for a meaningful and fulfilling life of the mind.
In addition to explore the natures of love and desire, Kadish’s characters unearth exciting histories. The Weight of Ink illuminates the world of Jews in Amsterdam after their flight from Spain as well as Jews return to London in the seventeenth century, and Kadish’s approach to history is as nuanced as her approach to sex. She explores questions of how individuals respond to exile, persecution and violence through her characters with compassion and passionate interest. The tensions between individual desire and community demands simmer beneath the surface. The rabbi asks Ester, “What sort of life is possible—with no ground beneath one’s feet except the logic of one’s own mind?” The ballast to this question is a modern day aphorism shared between Helen and Aaron: “Never underestimate the passion of a lonely mind.”
Yes, I thought long and hard about carrying the heavy book with me on vacation, but once I started reading, I was riveted. As I neared the final pages of The Weight of Ink, I feel both satisfied and sad. The bottom line is: drop everything and dive into this book for the best summer read.
Philosophically provocative, historically rich and interesting, The Weight of Ink is the perfect summer novel—balancing richly drawn characters with a driving, compelling plot.