REVIEW: The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich
The Imperial Harem, Constantinople, 1578. Hannah and Isaac Levi, Venetians in exile, have overcome unfathomable obstacles to begin life anew in the Ottoman Empire. He works in the growing silk trade, and she, the best midwife in the capital, tends to the hundreds of women in Sultan Murat III’s lively and infamous harem. One night, Hannah is unexpectedly summoned to the extravagant palace and confronted with Leah, a Jewish peasant girl who was violently abducted. The sultan favors Leah as his next conquest and wants her to produce his heir, but if the spirited girl fails an important test, she faces a terrible fate. Taken by Leah’s tenacity, Hannah risks everything to help her. But as Hannah agonizes over her decision, an enchanting stranger arrives from afar to threaten her peaceful life with Isaac, and soon Leah too reveals a dark secret that could condemn them both.
Dear Ms. Rich,
When I’ve enjoyed an author’s book(s), I’ll try and keep an eye open for new releases. “The Midwife of Venice” was one of my happy discoveries in 2012 so when I saw this book had been released and that it’s a continuation of Hannah and Isaac’s story, of course it went on my want list.
One thing I noticed immediately is that the pace and “feel” seemed off. Chapter One is a violent yet strangely emotionally unmoving opening to the story. A young girl’s life is upended but I never felt my heart catch. She acts as if her feelings are blunted – shock, I guess – but the way the scene is written my response was more ho-hum than Oh-dear-God. After this, the action moves to Constantinople where Hannah and Isaac now live after the events of “Venice.” Hannah is a midwife to the Sultan’s harem and Isaac is now a silk merchant. Hannah is called to the palace and more time gets spent describing the journey there and the palace rather than what happens after. Lots of things about the city, palace and court are described but all of it seemed more a well integrated college lecture instead of pulling me into a “you are there in this splendid world.”
The main point of view is told by Hannah yet the opening chapter is from Leah’s view though it’s the only time this happens in the book. I wanted more. What were her feelings during her journey from her capture to the Seraglio? If we’re only going to get her past tense feelings as related to Hannah, why have the first chapter at all? The villain, Cesca, is fascinating to dive into early in the story but after some scenes giving her more depth and a background which explains her drive in life, we only get two short POV chapters much later in the tale. And poor Isaac who was such a delight to read about in the first book is little more than a life size cardboard cutout from whom we get nothing.
No wait we do get something from Isaac. We get actions that swing wildly depending on what the plot needs at that moment rather than anything that feels like a real character. We need to see how happy Isaac and Hannah are in their new life? Isaac is on automatic as a kissing fool. When Hannah is needed to be seen as unsure of her life, suddenly Isaac appears to be falling for another woman. When that part of the plot is resolved, just as quickly he’s back to his old self almost as if a fairy waved a wand. None of it felt real.
Lots of aspects of the plot get rushed over too. It’s almost as if the plot skipped over water like a stone. “Two months later…” “several weeks had passed…” and I feel as if I’m getting glimpses of a story that got drastically edited down. Seemingly major issues would loom largely, get truncated build-ups and then, whoosh, they’re over with little drama. The whole has a curiously flat feel. I thought “this is it??” In addition, lots of the plot is already laid out and revealed so that I already knew what was going to happen without even peeking at the end. That took a lot of the suspense right out of it.
The finale reminded me in a way of a bad mystery/crime story in which a lot of villain exposition occurs to wind things up and explain all the things needed for closure. And rather than having Hannah or Isaac take charge as they did in “Venice,” another character serves as the all powerful judge who dictates everyone’s actions. It was all too neat, too pat and too easy.
After my delight in “Venice,” I have to say that “Harem” was a sad disappointment. From the way certain events are left, I can tell that the plan is for another book to wrap them up. However, I’m not sure I’ll be eagerly waiting since this book certainly won’t be one I’ll probably think much about after a week or so. It’s rare that I say I’m glad I bought a book at used book prices but for this one, I am. It does have a pretty cover, though. D