During the second half of the 16th century, a wealthy widow by the name of Doña Antonia Nissim is arrested and charged with being a secret Jew. The punishment? Death by burning. Enter Suleiman the Magnificent, an Ottoman "Schindler," and the most celebrated sultan in all of Turkish history. With the help of the Sultan, the widow and her children manage their escape to Istanbul. Life is seemingly idyllic for the family in their new home, that is, until the Sultan's son meets and falls in love with Tamar, Doña Antonia's beautiful and free-spirited granddaughter. A quiet love affair ensues until one day, the girl vanishes.
Over four centuries later, thirty-two year old Selim Osman, a playboy prince with a thriving real estate empire, is suddenly diagnosed with a life-theatening condition. Abandoning the mother of his unborn child, he vanishes from Istanbul without an explanation. In a Manhattan hospital, he meets Hannah, a talented artist and the daughter of a French Holocaust survivor. As their story intertwines with that of their ancestors, readers are taken back to Nazi-occupied Paris, and to a seaside village in the Holy Land where a world of secrets is illuminated.
Theirs is a love that has been dormant for centuries, spanning continents, generations, oceans, and religions. Bound by a debt that has lingered through time, they must right the wrongs of the past if they're ever to break the shackles of their future.
I've read several books in recent years about the persecution and subsequent expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and all of them ended with the central Jewish characters leaving, though none said where they were going. So I was left wondering: Where did the Jews go when they were forced out of Spain? This book gave me an answer: the Ottoman Empire. Aha! This story begins with two young people whose privileged world is upended when they discover that the Christian lives they've been living do not reflect their true heritage. But embracing their secret Jewish ancestry and faith places them in danger as the inquisition sweeps through, and they are forced to flee to Istanbul, where they find shelter under Suleiman the Magnificent's rule. The couple's daughter, Tamar, is raised and educated among the Sultan's harem, where she forms a close friendship with Suleiman's grandson, Murat, that blossoms into love. But just as Murat is coming into manhood and preparing to step into his role as the next ruler of the Ottoman Empire, with his beloved Tamar at his side, Tamar disappears. Devastated and unaccepting, Murat consults a seer who tells him that he and Tamar are destined to be together again, and thus Murat devotes much of his life to finding his lost love, and going a bit mad in the process, giving rise to whispers of a Sultan's Curse that will plague generations of his descendants. The rest of the story follows various descendants of both Murat and Tamar as their souls search for each other throughout the ages.
I took me a while to warm up to The Debt of Tamar--about 200 pages, actually--and the reason for that is the writing style. It's a fast-moving story that does not leave much room for character development until the present-day storyline nears its conclusion. The quick pace doesn't leave a lot of room for in-depth story exploration either. Because it's a sweeping saga spanning multiple families and generations, I found it hard to develop a real emotional connection with most of the characters. Just when I felt like I was getting to know one of them, their part in the story was over and it was time to move on to the next character. And I felt like not enough time was spent on Tamar and Murat for me to feel the soul-deep connection that would give rise to the Sultan's Curse and guide the destinies of generations of their descendants. Nor could I figure out how some of the later characters were related to them. So I just tried to sweep those questions to the back of my mind and enjoy the story for what it was.
While I did feel that the writing lacked the sophistication and depth I've come to expect from historical fiction, Ms. Dweck did leave room in her prose for some fantastic, haunting imagery, poignant observations and social commentary, and mouth-watering description. I loved how the story wove together threads of the Jews under the Spanish Inquisition and under the Nazi regime, highlighting some similarities I had not fully recognized myself until now. I was totally enthralled as events and people finally came together in the present day, and the story did not pan out at all like I thought it would, so big props for unpredictability, but I can't say I was pleased with the outcome. I felt kind of gypped, like I didn't get to see the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy. Though I did shed a tear. I know! This book is a jumble of contrasting feelings for me--things I loved and things I didn't, elements that worked beautifully and some that didn't seem to work at all, characters whose motivations I couldn't understand and some whose motivations I understood all too well. There's definitely never a dull moment, and it takes the reader on a wild ride from Spain to the Sultan's palace and his harem to Paris under Nazi occupation to Palestine and present-day Istanbul and New York, with threads of the past and the Sultan's Curse woven throughout.
The Debt of Tamar is something different, something that may introduce readers to some history they haven't encountered yet, and something that may spark deeper thinking. I think this is the kind of book that will be a different experience for every reader. With so many characters and events and things to ponder, no two readers will walk away with the same thoughts and reflections. I like books like that.
My Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5
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