This second novel from Etzioni-Halevy, like her first, The Song of Hannah, is a fictional take on a Biblical heroine. The Song of Hannah focused on Hannah and her friend and rival, Pninah. The Garden of Ruth focuses on Pninah's granddaughter Osnath and her quest to uncover details about the woman behind the Bible's Book of Ruth.
Osnath is a beautiful young woman, educated as a scribe like her grandmother, Pninah. On a visit to Bethlehem with her grandmother and uncle, the prophet Samuel, she discovers a scrap of parchment as she explores her relative's scroll room. The captivating message on the parchment is addressed to Ruth the Moabite, the great-grandmother of the future King David (who happens to be Osnath's lover). As Osnath begins to dig deeper into Ruth's mysterious past, her efforts are hindered by David's brother Eliab, who hints at a family secret too shocking to be revealed.
There are two stories at work in this novel, one being Ruth's story and her controversial past that threatens David and Eliab's huge inheritance. The other story has to do with Osnath and her entanglement with both David and Eliab, as well as her quest to discover more about Ruth. She feels intrinsically connected to Ruth, as if they share the same joy and the same heartbreak, as if they are one and the same spirit. Some aspects of their lives parallel each other.
Both Ruth and Osnath are captivating, naïve, and intelligent characters who are rendered with sensitivity. They are both passionate women who defy the conventions of society and Torah Law. Ruth is far more interesting in this novel than she is in the Bible; the details of Ruth that are given in the Bible are used here, but Etzioni-Halevy fleshes her out more and makes her easier to relate to.
As with her first novel, Etzioni-Halevy does an amazing job of bringing ancient Jewish culture to life. Descriptions of the food, housing, clothing, work ethic, and social mores all help to transport the reader back to Biblical times.
Readers religious or not will find The Garden of Ruth to be an engaging work of historical fiction. I was loath to put it down.