The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

The Dovekeepers is a lovely novel about the lives of four women dovekeepers atop Masada in the years prior to its fall. I grew up hearing stories of Masada so the history on which the book is based was not new to me, but Hoffman made the desert fortress and the lives of these women believable and hot-blooded. Compare this novel to The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders and you will not be disappointed. The four central characters who each narrate a portion of the novel emerge as vibrant, brave, complicated, loving people. The novel contains all the elements of great historical fiction about women: birth scenes, magic, forbidden love, betrayal, murder, women who love the same man, prayers, spells, bitterness, lush descriptions of food preparation, and epic death scenes. My favorite character is Yael, an unloved daughter who rises about the sadness surrounding her birth. The weakest character is Eleazar Ben Yair, who also happens to be the most important historical figure on Masada. He is a gray-eyed, learned man, but his charismatic and zealous nature is undermined by the lack of development of his character. He might have been portrayed as a crazed leader or as a religious zealot, but instead he is a shadow of the man he should be in a novel about his legend as leader of Masada—and as the lover of one of the main characters in the novel. The reader is left wondering about the nature of their romance—the first meeting and initial romance are only told to us, not shown, and the relationship is weaker than the passionate love stories of the other narrators. Otherwise the story is passionate and rich, lovely and magical in the way of all Hoffman books, but this is exceptional—an exploration of what human beings will do for each other when faced with a no-win scenario, how some will weaken and crumple, and how all of these people did not falter in the moment of their people’s greatest need.

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