The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem
Author: Sarit Yishai-Levi
Anthony Berris (Translator)
Publication Date: April 5th, 2016
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Synopsis: 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.
I have a huge weakness for historical fiction, so when I got the chance to review this book, I jumped on it. There’s always something about reading a book featuring a different location, setting, and or/time period than our own, and The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem delivers exactly what you would expect – with a complex, captivating story, deep characters, and a very poetic-like writing style that you can’t help but fall for.
Gabriela has grown up somewhat lonely and craving her mother’s attention. Her mother always tends to dish out charm and smiles and give them to everyone else, but Gabriela always feels as if she isn’t quite getting the part of her mother that everyone else is – her true self. Gabriela and her mother just can’t quite seem to get along – no matter how hard they try, or how much Gabriela longs for her mother’s affection.
When Gabriela learns her family’s stories – especially those of her great-grandmother and grandmother, she begins piecing together pieces of what life was like for them, and what life is like for her now. She discovers why her mother’s personality is the way it is, as well as why she seems to hold Gabriela at arm’s length, rather than give her the closeness she so desires. The things that Gabriela learns about her family range from sad, happy, to downright shocking, and as the pieces of the puzzle come together, Gabriela learns more about her roots than she thought she ever would.
While this book did have a few places where the pacing was a little slow, I stuck with it, and it did pick up a bit. The beginning was a little confusing for me, because there seems to be a lot to take in, in terms of characters and places, but eventually you start to remember them. The writing was nice, and flowed well from one paragraph to the next, so it was easy and quite enjoyable to read. While I didn’t really like Gabriela’s mother all that much, eventually you get to see why she behaves the way she does, and read about the things she’s gone though to make her the way she is. Gabriela’s character was well-rounded and easy to connect with.
If you enjoy historical fiction, you should give this one a go. Once I started reading it, I didn’t want to put it down, and it reminded me why I love this genre so much!
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
About the Author:
Sarit Yishai-Levi was born in Jerusalem in 1947 to a Sephardic family that has lived in the city for seven generations.. Before turning to journalism, Yishai-Levi acted in theater and film for several years. Yishai-Levi has published four non-fiction books. Her first novel, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, a bestseller in Israel. It is now being made into a feature film.
Q& A with Sarit Yishai-Levi
What is your inspiration behind The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem? How did you come up with the novel’s title?
This may sound strange, but the inspiration for The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem came from within me. I did not set out to write an epic novel, but having started, it felt like someone was sitting at my shoulder, whispering in my ear and leading me through the story, through its twists and turns. That experience had been my life for the 6.5 years it took me to write this book.
I don’t remember exactly when I picked the title The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, but when the character Rosa mockingly calls her daughter Luna “the beauty queen of Jerusalem,” I knew instantly that this should be the book’s title. My Israeli editor wasn’t very happy with the title, but I insisted.
You’re a well-known Israeli journalist. How is writing a novel different from the work you do on a day-to-day basis?
There is a world of difference between writing a column or other journalistic story and writing a novel. In journalism it is necessary to be matter-of-fact, even lean, and to narrow down the story handed to you by the subject. The person who is interviewed is the center, and the journalist is merely a vessel to channel their message to readers. The words are theirs, as well as the drama and the story. When writing a novel you have all the time in the world to tell your story. It is you who put words in the characters’ mouths and thus create the drama, the highs and the lows. You build a whole world, and it is a very exciting and rewarding experience.
How has the success of the novel changed your life, personally and professionally? What is it like to have your novel published in multiple languages and countries?
The publication of the book changed my life completely. Its phenomenal success in Israel made me instantly famous. I did many interviews, TV spots, and talks. Before the book came out I was Sarit Yishai-Levi, the journalist. Now, I am author and journalist, and for me it is an absolute dream come true.
The moment I held the Italian edition of the book (Italy is where the novel was first published outside of Israel) was very emotional. The fact that people in another country had read my story moved me to tears. When I went to Italy for the book launch, I visited the famous Rizzoli bookstore in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. Seeing my book featured on the main table there was overwhelming. Since then the book has been translated to other languages, and I am very excited each time I hold a new edition of it. I am especially looking forward to the book’s upcoming release in English. I truly hope it will move American readers as it did Israeli readers.
Who are your favorite novelists? Were there any writers or books that inspired you?
My favorite authors are Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ayn Rand, Paul Auster, Paullina Simons, Victoria Hislop, Maria Duenas, and the Israeli authors Amos Oz, Meir Shalev, David Grossman, and Zeruya Shalev. Books that have inspired me: A Pigeon and A Boy by Meir Shalev, The Island by Maria Hislop, and The Time In Between by Maria Duenas. My all-time favorite novels are Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
One should be able to forgive others before one is able to forgive oneself. In order to love another, one should love oneself. Love conquers all. In addition, I hope readers will embrace the story of the Ladino-speaking community that has resided in Israel for generations as the story of Israel and an important part of its culture and history.
What’s up next for you?
I am now finishing a new book, scheduled for release in early 2017 in Hebrew by Modan Publishing House. Filming for the movie adaptation of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is scheduled to begin at the end of 2016 in Israel.