Song sung blue

Naomi Ragen’s latest novel fails to hit the right note.

Mountains  521 (photo credit: Itsik Marom)
Mountains 521
(photo credit: Itsik Marom)
Some of the best works of poets seem to come from times of despair and hardship. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the prose in Naomi Ragen’s latest novel: The Tenth Song.
In her opening acknowledgments, Ragen writes: “The writing of this book took place during one of the most challenging experiences of my life. That this experience resulted in the writing of a book, rather than depression, alcoholism or gaining 90 pounds, is due to the help, love and guidance I received from many wonderful people.”
Although she does not state what sort of challenge she faced, it is no secret that Ragen has battled charges of plagiarism.
She is also a victim of terror, having been present at the infamous bombing of Netanya’s Park Hotel on Seder night 2002 – an attack in which 30 people were killed and 140 wounded.
The novel starts with a very promising theme: How does it feel when one minute you’re on top of the world, and the next minute that whole world collapses? The heroine is Abigail Samuels, who, as the book opens, is living the Jewish American dream: well-liked in her Orthodox community, married to a highly respected and wealthy accountant and planning the wedding of her Harvard law student daughter, Kayla, to another Jewish graduating student with an equally bright future.
This charmed existence comes to a stunningly sudden end when her husband, Adam, is arrested on (false) charges of funding a terrorist organization leading to the deaths of American soldiers. The resulting publicity, spread instantly via the Internet, leads the members of the family to reassess their lives, values and friendships.
The story branches out to follow Kayla, who takes a completely unexpected move, running off to Israel and seeking refuge in a desert commune led by a guru-type mystic (where, of course, she also finds love).
Although Ragen has lived in Israel for close to 40 years, the scenes set in Boston have an authentic feel and the novel and its initial premise certainly grabbed my attention. However, it’s hard to have sympathy for Kayla, which makes her transformation seem unlikely.
Throughout the book, Ragen includes plenty on her pet cause of women’s rights.
When Kayla reaches Jerusalem, Ragen also shows her genuine love of the city. The result, however, is that some paragraphs read like they should be on her popular blog rather than clogging up the plot.
There are also several inexplicable slips in continuity and time line which should not have got past the editors.
The desert scenes, although even more contrived, are more touching.
The spiritual message ultimately saved the book. Toward the end, I even found a passage that was inspirational enough for me to feel pleased I’d persevered.
The mystic Rav Natan is explaining where miracles lie in ordeals: “God can ask you to do the impossible because it is impossible for you, not for Him. When we are faced with such an ordeal, we should not ask if it’s possible to overcome it; we must ask if it’s necessary. If the answer is yes, and you are willing to make that leap, then He will catch you. But you have to make the first move. You have to lift up your feet. You cannot see who you are meant to become from where you are standing now. You can only see it once you arrive, when you allow God to stretch you beyond your real limitations.”
When Abigail – sent by her husband to bring back their daughter – weeps that the trials are too much and that she is about to lose everything, including her self-respect and good name, Daniel – the major character from the commune – explains: “Rav Natan once taught us that when God removes our familiar boundaries, when He changes the landscape of our lives, it’s the scariest thing in the world...
But also the most blessed. A second chance to be born – not like a baby, but with all our knowledge. A chance to start over.”
THIS IS a book for Ragen fans. If you’ve never read Ragen before, do yourself (and her) a favor and start with something else – perhaps The Sacrifice of Tamar or Jephte’s Daughter.
Tellingly, the back jacket of the hardcover copy I read carries praise for other Ragen novels, The Saturday Wife, The Covenant and The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, but not a word about what lies within its own covers.
We can only hope that having overcome her own ordeals, Ragen is feeling strengthened and will be back on form in her next book.