Published by St. Martin's Press, Thomas Dunne Books on April 5, 2016
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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.
“Set against the golden age of Hollywood, the dark days of WWII, and the swinging ’70s, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem follows generations of unforgettable women as they forge their own paths through times of dramatic change.” – jacket excerpt
The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is an absorbing novel that traces the familial and amorous relationships and life-shaping decisions of four generations of Israeli women.
“The shop employed several seamstresses who made the clothes according to patterns that appeared in Burda magazine, and Luna would devour the magazine voraciously, studying it for hours on end. She spent all of her wages on clothes she purchased from the shop, and was always dressed at the height of fashion, accessorized to the most minute detail. The polish on her fingernails matched that on her toenails, which matched her lipstick, which in turn matched her dress, shoes, and handbag. As she dressed, she also blossomed.”
I have to admit, I really loved one of the main female characters, Luna, because of her obsession with fashion and her unstoppable desire to look good. It seemed like an act of defiance in a culture that controlled women and their bodies.
But the beauty of this story is beyond cover-deep. The author’s prose is as classy as the cover of this book and provided an often overlooked, alternative snapshot of WWII era. I have read SO MANY WWII historical fiction novels, but not once have I read one from the Israeli perspective. It was refreshing and completely engaging to follow the narratives of the women at the heart of this intricately woven tale that examines the strained and tumultuous mother-daughter relationships set against a backdrop of unstable times in Jerusalem.
While the pacing of this book takes some dedication, it is completely worth the time it takes to read. The author masterfully captures the struggles that younger generations experience with their parents and older relatives. There is almost a voyeuristic feel because of the candid, ”airing of dirty laundry” scenarios that give real depth to this tale. The author captures the rigid patriarchal culture of the times and how women both accepted and rejected the constraints of it throughout the four generations featured in the novel. Despite cultural and temporal differences, I identified with many of the situations and lines of thought among the female characters.
Any lover of historical fiction and literary family portraits will want to add this to their collection. Reading The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem was an enriching experience.
And just for fun:
I liked the WWII era storyline the best, so here is a fun and informative article about fashion in the 1940s. This fashion history website is addictive to look at and full of educational information. Enjoy!