two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
56-Jan-Feb-2012
user_rating: 
0

A-The DovekeepersAlice Hoffman is best known for her tales of magical whimsy and witchcraft. Her novels include Practical Magic (1995), The Third Angel ( 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2008), The Story Sisters ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2009), The Red Garden ( 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2011), and the Oprah Book Club pick Here on Earth (1997), among others. Here she weaves fiction and fact to recreate the tragic story of Masada.

The Story: Two thousand years ago, Roman soldiers attacked Masada, a remote desert fortress overlooking Israel's Dead Sea. The Jewish stronghold was home to more than 900 people, refugees from Jerusalem; it was a thriving community filled with towers, bathhouses, a dovecote, and several small palaces. Hoffman uses the only written account of the ancient siege to retell the story of how these people chose to die at their own hands rather than those of the Roman conquerors. Four women tell the tale: Yael, the unloved daughter of a Sicarii assassin; Revka, a baker's wife whose daughter is murdered by Roman soldiers; Shirah, a medicine woman in love with a married man; and Aziza, Shirah's daughter, who defies convention by living a soldier's life.
Scribner. 512 pages. $27.99. ISBN: 9781451617474

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Hoffman salts her fictional tale with archaeological artifacts found at Masada--a swatch of tartan cloth; inscribed pottery shards; a pair of sandals--to imagine how the seven might have survived. And how the end came for others. ... Hoffman's fiction is always compelling, but the history within The Dovekeepers makes this novel haunting." Patty Rhule

Minneapolis Star Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Hoffman creates a vividly detailed world that I found mesmerizing--for the first couple hundred pages. ... But ultimately the four narrators seemed less like real women than the four queens of a deck of cards, archetypes rather than characters, the details too repetitive and portentous." Patricia Hagen

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 2 of 5 Stars
"Because the characters surrounding this quartet rarely get to speak for themselves--The Dovekeepers doesn't have much dialogue--they are reduced to chess pieces, moved by Hoffman at will to satisfy the needs of a clumsily handled plot. ... Stripped of its overworked plot and overwrought prose, The Dovekeepers could have been a much better book." Mike Fischer

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"Despite the distance of 2,000 years, these poor Jewish women are all surprisingly well-educated liberals with little interest in religion, unless it's appropriately hip and pagan. ... A more wearing problem stems from the fact that these four intriguingly diverse narrators speak in a fairly similar, narrow range, holed up between stoic lamentation and portentous declaration." Ron Charles

NY Times Book Review 1.5 of 5 Stars
"[I]nstead of a gripping work of fiction that lives up to this praise, is a long novel full of middling descriptions, hackneyed characters and histrionic plot twists. ... The abundance of overstatement and clumsy description minimizes the impact of actual dramatic events." Sarah Fay

Critical Summary

Although Alice Hoffman has been an uneven writer over the course of her career, The Dovekeepers fell far short of expectations. Most critics voiced similar complaints about overwrought prose, wooden characters, underdeveloped romances, and unbelievable plot twists. Several also found the modern-day sensibilities of the women jarring. The Minneapolis Star Tribune noted that "there would have been far more to admire were there less of [the book's 500-plus pages]." Only the USA Today critic found the story to be a "thrilling, passionate saga," but even she acknowledged a need for more stringent editing. Sadly, although The Dovekeepers begins with a fascinating premise, most critics recommended giving this "high-minded feminist story" (Washington Post) a pass.