Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem

Author: Sarit Yishai-Levi
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: St Martin's Press
First Published: April 5, 2016
First Line: "My Mother Luna passed away shortly before my eighteenth birthday."

Book Description from GoodReads: The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is a dazzling novel of mothers and daughters, stories told and untold, and the binds that tie four generations of women.

Gabriela's mother Luna is the most beautiful woman in all of Jerusalem, though her famed beauty and charm seem to be reserved for everyone but her daughter. Ever since Gabriela can remember, she and Luna have struggled to connect. But when tragedy strikes, Gabriela senses there's more to her mother than painted nails and lips.

Desperate to understand their relationship, Gabriela pieces together the stories of her family's previous generations—from Great-Grandmother Mercada the renowned healer, to Grandma Rosa who cleaned houses for the English, to Luna who had the nicest legs in Jerusalem. But as she uncovers shocking secrets, forbidden romances, and the family curse that links the women together, Gabriela must face a past and present far more complex than she ever imagined.

Set against the Golden Age of Hollywood, the dark days of World War II, and the swingin' '70s, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem follows generations of unforgettable women as they forge their own paths through times of dramatic change. With great humor and heart, Sarit Yishai-Levi has given us a powerful story of love and forgiveness—and the unexpected and enchanting places we find each.

My Review: This book is a family saga spanning four generations of women in a Jewish family in Jerusalem.  It is filled with turmoil, grief and love and I liked that Yishai-Levi focused on the various, and often complicated, female relationships within a family (mother, daughter, sister, daughter-in-law, grandmother...).  The story is told via different eras with Gabriela sometimes picking up the reigns of the story and other times the story was told in the third person.

The author also gives her readers a clear vision of life in Jerusalem, its culture and people, specifically the Sephardi Jews, of whom I knew nothing about prior to reading this book. There are family issues as well as political tensions that influence the Gabriela and her family.

Unfortunately, I struggled to get immersed in the story and characters.  The beginning has a slow start but towards the middle, as Gabriela learns more about her family, things picked up and I became more engaged.  But I kept hoping for some sort of twist, some huge family secret to be unearthed which didn't happen.  Instead there is a lot of family bickering and day-to-day dilemmas.  There are reasons given for the conflict between the women but it didn't seem like enough of a reason for such harsh attitudes and behaviours that the reader witnesses.  The book continued to have a very melancholy and heavy feel throughout and as I kept reading my interest in the plot and characters began to wane.

I think a part of this disconnect stemmed from the fact that I never felt a connection with the women and it was quite hard to like a couple of them, namely Mercada and Luna, both of whom came off as extremely narcissistic, consistently miserable and selfish.  They made for some rather interesting scenes but they also had no redeeming qualities and I felt bad for those who felt their wrath on a daily basis.  After all of this bitterness and family destruction I was hoping for an ending that would ties things up, at least partly, but was left with a rather unsatisfying ending. 

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem had the makings of a great read but unfortunately it didn't quite hit the mark for me.  While I found there was limited character development and an unsatisfying ending, I applaud the author for taking on the sometimes complicated relationships of women within an extended family and including the culture of Sephardi Jews into the story.  People who enjoy historical fiction reads set in tumultuous times and with lots of familial tension should enjoy this read.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to St Martin's Press and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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