Book of Splendor

Overview

A historical novel about the most unlikely of lovers, interwoven with the mysticism of the Jewish occult.
Frances Sherwood brings to life the experience of the Jewish community during a period of oppression and rebirth. Set in seventeenth-century Prague, The Book of Splendor is an adventure-filled romance stocked with court intrigue and political tension, including the machinations of the rival Ottoman Empire, the religious controversies of Protestantism, and the constant threat...

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The Book of Splendor: A Novel

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Overview

A historical novel about the most unlikely of lovers, interwoven with the mysticism of the Jewish occult.
Frances Sherwood brings to life the experience of the Jewish community during a period of oppression and rebirth. Set in seventeenth-century Prague, The Book of Splendor is an adventure-filled romance stocked with court intrigue and political tension, including the machinations of the rival Ottoman Empire, the religious controversies of Protestantism, and the constant threat of violence to the Jewish community. At the heart of the novel is Rochel, a bastard seamstress who escapes poverty through an arranged marriage to the tailor Zev, but falls in love with Yossel, the Golem created by Rabbi Loew to protect the Jewish community. Meanwhile, Emperor Rudolph II puts the safety of all Prague at risk in his mad bid for an elixir of immortality. The Book of Splendor is an epic tale reminiscent of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, and a love story as unlikely as Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring. Reading group guide included.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times
“The Book of Splendor is not just a title but truth in labeling...stunning.... [Sherwood] is the rare writer whose work goes far beyond what we think of as historical novels.”
Washington Post
This is a book with splendor to spare.— Carolyn See
Los Angeles Times
“Richly textured.”
John Barth
“A many-splendored book indeed: Frances Sherwood's historical savvy and narrative chutzpah bring to life the Prague of 1600, from its Golems and Wonder-Rabbis to the last of the Holy Roman Emperors and his court—all woven into a love story as altogether convincing and affecting as it is improbable.”
Scott Turow
“There is no end to the superlatives to apply to this mesmerizing novel....A truly remarkable achievement.”
Carolyn See - Washington Post
“This is a book with splendor to spare.”
Valerie Sayers
“This exuberant book surprised, stunned, and captivated me. 'Historical novel' doesn't begin to describe what it is; Sherwood's contemplations and manipulations of history (and of the novel, for that matter) are wholly original. She seesaws between the sacred and the profane, the fanciful and the earthbound, but she always maintains her balance. The Book of Splendor is deeply satisfying.”
Sheri Holman
“Frances Sherwood has called to life a remarkable ensemble in The Book of Splendor, from the struggling citizens of the Judenstadt to the alchemists intent on securing immortality for a mad emperor. This is a wonderful book about the meaning of life: what it means to create and what it means to live honorably in the world.”
Binnie Kirshenbaum
“In glorious color, Frances Sherwood brings to life a splendid cast of characters from the Habsburg empire at the dawn of the seventeenth century. She also, miraculously, fully brings to life a man made of mud; Rabbi Loew's golem of Prague is depicted here with a piercing love. The Book of Splendor is thrilling and terrifying and very beautiful.”
Booklist
“Starred Review. A provocative, gripping novel.”
John Barth
A many-splendored book indeed: Frances Sherwood's historical savvy and narrative chutzpah bring to life the Prague of 1600.
Publishers Weekly
The golem, that legendary monster/ watchman/ savior supposedly created by Rabbi Judah Loew in Prague in 1601, has never lost its ability to inspire the creative imagination. Sherwood, whose last novel, Vindication, was a masterful interpretation of the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, here crafts another rich historical fiction, juxtaposing the beleaguered lives of the residents of Prague's Judenstadt with the baroque excesses of the mad, egocentric Hapsberg emperor Rudolph II. As in the legend, Rabbi Loew creates the golem in response to rumors that the Jewish community will be eradicated in a pogrom. In Sherwood's version, the huge figure, miraculously fashioned out of mud from the Vltava River and a secret code embedded in the Kabbalah, is immediately more human and complex than the original. Given the name Yossel, but lacking a tongue and a soul, the giant falls in love with 18-year-old Rochel Werner, a talented seamstress recently married to the community's shoemaker. In counterpoint to the forbidden love story, we read of Rudolph's demented scheme to obtain a potion that will grant him immortality. Brought from London, real-life alchemists Dr. John Dee and sidekick edward Kelley soon find themselves in a feverish race with time to convince Rudolph that they possess the formula. Meanwhile, Rudolph holds the Jewish community hostage since he thinks Rabbi Loew may know the secret to eternal life. Rudolph's well-documented dementia is balanced with the tender love story, even if the latter's resolution seems more wishful than credible in what is on one level a tale of a Jewish community whose right to exist is under continual threat. Sherwood's supple prose and her ability to integrate historical background into a timely and resonant narrative should give this eloquent literary effort popular appeal. 5-city author tour. (July 8) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Set 400 years ago in the city of Prague, The Book of Splendor is a strange combination of folklore, imperial intrigue, Jewish culture and mysticism. While the central story is about the love between a poor orphan girl forced into marriage who falls in love with a Golem, a giant creature created by the town Rabbi, other fantasies and stories abound at many different levels. The author makes many observations about the frailties of humans and the abuse of power, whether religious or secular. Some of the scenes verge on the ridiculous and fantastic, while some of the action could take place today. The setting of Old Prague adds to the sense of unreality in both its beauty and ugliness. The reader will never be sure what is real and what is not as some of the humans act like figments of the imagination and some of the mysticism has a basis in science. Overall, it is an interesting and unique story. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Norton, 348p., Ages 15 to adult.
— Nola Theiss
Library Journal
A young, illiterate Jewess of dubious birth, given to fanciful stories, Rochel is able to escape poverty through an arranged marriage to Zev, a widowed tailor. This domestic scene is played out in the shadow of 17th-century imperial Prague alongside oppression and poverty during the reign of Habsburg Emperor Rudolph II. The emperor, concerned with countless creature comforts and expanding his territories, has decided he needs immortality and sets his alchemists to the task. There is much court intrigue and political tension. The characters include the famous Rabbi Loew, who fashions the man of mud, the Golom of Prague; astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler; the alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelley; and an assortment of spies, lepers, monks, and mountebanks. Prague at this time was the center of Jewish life in Europe, and Sherwood artfully conveys the experiences of the Jewish community there. In addition, she portrays the Islamic Ottoman Empire in the process of fomenting religious controversy among the hatching Protestant movement, the established church, and Czech nationalism. This fine, imaginative historical novel by the author of Vindication, a novel based loosely on the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, is recommended for all libraries. Molly Abramowitz, Silver Spring, MD Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A rich historical from Sherwood (Green, 1995; Vindication, 1993) about 17th-century Prague's Rabbi Loew, his Golem, some English alchemists, and an obsessed Habsburg emperor. Many know the story of Rabbi Loew, the saintly, erudite tzaddik (holy man) who made a giant out of mud and breathed life into him. Loew is indeed one of Sherwood's characters here, but the real protagonist is Rochel, a Jewish seamstress who marries the kindly but dull cobbler Zev because, since she's of illegitimate birth, no one else will have her. Rochel is one of the best tailors in Europe, and her skill in making clothes for the gentry and courtiers of Hradcany Castle brings her to the attention of Emperor Rudolph II. A vain hypochondriac, Rudolph has heard about two shady English alchemists (John Dee and Edward Kelly) whom he believes have discovered the elixir of immortality, so he brings them to Prague and orders them to produce it for him. Charlatans or not, Kelly and Dee are in a no-win situation: If they fail to create the elixir, Rudolph will have them executed for fraud-but if they succeed, he will put them to death to keep them from revealing the secret to others. Meanwhile, civil unrest is brought about by the rise of Protestantism and threats of Ottoman invasion, giving rise to new resentment against the Jews. So Rabbi Loew creates his Golem, named Yossel, to defend the inhabitants of the Judenstadt ghetto. Naturally, word of Yossel's exploits (he saves Rochel from drowning, for a start) reaches the emperor, who tries to bring the rabbi into his immortality project. Loew knows it's always best to keep a good distance from the throne, but he also knows how to bargain-his knowledge in exchange forprotection of the Jews. A deal with the devil? Read and see. Delightful: rich in its characters, vivid in its setting, and genuinely intriguing overall. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393324587
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/19/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 981,237
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Frances Sherwood is a teacher in South Bend, Indiana, where she lives with her husband. Her previous books of fiction include Vindication and The Book of Splendor.

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