Book Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

The book in the title is a centuries old Jewish prayer book that has survived the Inquisition, Nazi occupation and a ton of conflict in between. Now it’s threatened again. Smart and creative, People of the Book is a very satisfying read.

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Let’s begin with a People of the Book summary:

Hannah Heath, a scholar and book restorer, receives the assignment of a lifetime when she is asked to restore the Sarajevo Haggadah for an upcoming special event. It’s 1996 and embattled Sarajevo is trying to shake off the grim aftermath of war. Restoring the haggadah, a beloved local artifact, will be a symbolic victory.

A haggadah is a Jewish prayer book, used during Passover, that includes a narrative of the Exodus. This particular Haggadah, created during Medieval times, is unusual because of its vibrant illustrations. Illustrations weren’t common in Jewish prayer books from that time.

According to Wikipedia, “people of the book” is a term Muslims use to refer to Jews and Christians. That certainly applies here, as religion is an underlying theme of the novel. But it also applies to the main point of the book, which is to tell the stories of some of the people who left their “fingerprints” on the prayer book, and in doing so tell some of the history of the haggadah.

During the restoration process, Hannah uncovers these “fingerprints” and the author toggles back in time to tell the back story. For example, a butterfly wing found between the pages becomes the story of how the haggadah was hidden in the Alps during Nazi occupation. A wine stain becomes the story of how the book survived the Inquisition in Italy. A common theme of all these stories is religious intolerance, especially the perpetual persecution of Jews.

The use of so many back stories in People of the Book means the author had to create 5 or 6 little short stories set in different centuries and different countries with characters from three different religions. All of them are really well done and obviously well researched. It’s an interesting device to use and Ms. Brooks nailed it. The parts of the story during modern times were a little less interesting, but there was some intrigue and family strife to keep things lively.

Overall, I definitely recommend People of the Book. Thanks, Dianne, for the recommendation!

Check out my reviews of more great historical fiction  from Geraldine Brooks:

Caleb’s Crossing


11 thoughts on “Book Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

  1. I loved this book and agree that the modern portion was the least interesting/accurate. If you liked this one, The Book Thief (YA lit) was also pretty good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was wondering if you’d read this one, my preservationist friend! I read The Book Thief a few years ago when the twins were reading it for school. It made me cry pretty hard so I didn’t quite finish it. Luckily, my girls are made of tougher stuff! 🙂


  2. I’m so glad you reviewed this book – it is one of my all-time favorites! I first came across Geraldine Brooks when I read her first novel, Year of Wonders, a story of a housemaid in an isolated village in England during the bubonic plague outbreak in 1666. It was so gripping, I read it twice. Since I’m Jewish I was very excited when she wrote People of the Book, which, as you say, presents numerous compelling stories over many countries and many centuries. Her most recent novel, The Secret Chord, is a gripping retelling of the life of King David. Brooks has a special gift for making her characters appealing, even when they are deeply flawed. I have had another of her books, Caleb’s Crossing, on my nightstand for quite some time. You have encouraged me to start that one soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Martha, my goal is to review a book you haven’t read yet! But on the flip side, I always appreciate your comments. I wasn’t familiar Geraldine Brooks, even though she won a Pulitzer. I still have so much to learn! I will definitely be reading more of her works in the future!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Just yesterday I was looking for a good book to read. This sounds like it’s right up my alley! Thanks for the review and recommendation. I look forward to reading it!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Geraldine Brooks is a favorite author. The bubonic plague book was quite good but I liked People of the Book too. Wish I had the patience to write book reviews so I could remember more about the books I’ve read. I love your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Writing about the books definitely helps me remember them. But still, it’s always surprising how much I forget. It’s nice to have a written record to refer to.


  5. Pingback: Book Review: March by Geraldine Brooks | Book Thoughts from Bed

  6. Pingback: Book Review: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks | Book Thoughts from Bed

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