A Ceil­ing Made of Eggshells

  • Review
By – May 26, 2020

Jew­ish life in Spain before the expul­sion of 1492 is some­times roman­ti­cized as a dis­tant and glo­ri­ous part of his­to­ry end­ing in tragedy. Gail Car­son Levine’s new nov­el, A Ceil­ing Made of Eggshells, restores the dra­mat­ic real­i­ty of the time through the sto­ry of one Jew­ish girl and her fam­i­ly. Care­ful­ly researched and rich in his­tor­i­cal detail, the book cre­ates a full por­trait of the painful con­tra­dic­tions that defined the fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry Iber­ian Jew­ish world. Levine weaves a com­plex web of nar­ra­tive threads and places her char­ac­ters in sit­u­a­tions of moral and emo­tion­al ambiguity.

Palo­ma Loma” Cor­cia is kind and affec­tion­ate towards her younger sib­lings, nieces, and nephews. She’s eager to some­day be a wife and moth­er. Her own par­ents are lov­ing but imper­fect, and her old­er broth­er embod­ies some of the most neg­a­tive traits of an era when com­pro­mise and betray­al were com­mon. Loma’s Belo”(short for abue­lo, or grand­fa­ther), Joseph, is a com­mand­ing fig­ure; accord­ing to the author’s note, he is based very loose­ly” on the famous Jew­ish schol­ar and com­mu­ni­ty leader Isaac Abra­vanel. His attach­ment to his grand­daugh­ter is based on his recog­ni­tion of her intel­li­gence. Since she is female, how­ev­er, this qual­i­ty is prob­lem­at­ic. Levine’s por­trait of Joseph is hon­est and sub­tle. He insists that Loma accom­pa­ny him on impor­tant diplo­mat­ic and finan­cial mis­sions, but also depends on her to care for him in a frankly self­ish way. Their rela­tion­ship is not fil­tered through mod­ern norms — Levine describes Loma’s unques­tion­ing loy­al­ty to the fam­i­ly patri­arch, but also her frus­tra­tion and fear that he will will­ing­ly sac­ri­fice her future hap­pi­ness to his own needs.

The novel’s struc­ture mir­rors the maze of con­tin­gen­cies and dan­gers that con­front­ed Spain’s Jews. They are blamed for the plague but also used by the monar­chy and nobles as a reli­able source of income and finan­cial exper­tise. Syn­a­gogue ser­vices are inter­rupt­ed by ser­mons by Chris­t­ian cler­gy warn­ing them that their souls are in dan­ger. Con­ver­sion was a temp­ta­tion; Loma even allows her­self to imag­ine her life as a Chris­t­ian: “ … believ­ing that God had a son, eat­ing pork, mar­ry­ing a Chris­t­ian, hav­ing Chris­t­ian chil­dren, not need­ing Bela’s [her grandmother’s] amulet because no one kid­napped Chris­t­ian chil­dren.” Few Jew­ish fam­i­lies were spared the real­i­ty of this alter­na­tive to oppres­sion, and the Cor­cias are no excep­tion. Loma’s grand­fa­ther had praised her stub­born­ness because Stub­born­ness in a Jew is a virtue,” but that same qual­i­ty could threat­en Jews if they refused to bend to authority.

Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism was a defin­ing fea­ture of Spain before both Jews and Mus­lims were forcibly con­vert­ed, deport­ed, or killed. The Cor­cias’ Mus­lim ser­vant, Ham­dun, is empa­thet­ic and sup­port­ive, and his close­ness with Loma is poignant evi­dence of their shared vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Levine avoids cul­tur­al stereo­types, although she does not min­i­mize the degree to which anti­semitism per­vad­ed Span­ish cul­ture — from the unthink­ing cru­el­ty of neigh­bors to the exam­ple set by King Fer­di­nand and Queen Isabel­la, who are deter­mined both to exploit Jews and to pun­ish their rejec­tion of Christ. Young read­ers will learn a great deal about the ori­gins of racial anti­semitism in Spain — where even con­ver­sion did not bring about equal­i­ty between old” and new” Chris­tians, who were still sep­a­rat­ed by the con­cept of blood puri­ty.” Inte­grat­ed into the book as an unex­pect­ed gift are vers­es that Levine based on actu­al works from Spain’s Jew­ish Gold­en Age of Hebrew poet­ry. It also includes an excep­tion­al­ly infor­ma­tive intro­duc­tion, author’s note, glos­sary, and recipe for Sephardic eggs. Loma’s engross­ing sto­ry is not a his­to­ry les­son, but impor­tant his­tor­i­cal under­stand­ing emerges nat­u­ral­ly from this acces­si­ble work of fiction.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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