Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A romance of the patriarch

Herman Wouk has written such epics as The Winds of War, and his new book, The Lawgiver, is about Moses. So you might think it would be a huge sweeping beast of a novel. In fact, The Lawgiver is a charming story, told on a small scale.

In The Lawgiver, an elderly author named Herman Wouk is struggling to write a novel about Moses. He is contacted by a filmmaker who wants him to make a Moses movie.  The venture capitalist who's bankrolling the film, an eccentric Jewish billionaire, has insisted that Wouk be involved.

Betty Sarah Wouk (referred to throughout the book as BSW), is the author's agent and wife.  She's skeptical, but Wouk is intrigued, and signs on as a consultant. They hire as screenwriter and director a young woman named Margo Solovei, a brilliant wunderkind who rebelled from her Hasidic upbringing to make movies. Margo knows her Book of Exodus, but can she turn it into a movie that’s relevant to modern audiences?

The novel tells the story of the making of this movie. It also shows how writing about Moses helps Margo resolve her conflict between her independent, questioning mind and the religion of her fathers. It is an epistolary novel, told entirely in emails, faxes, text messages, and Skype transcripts.

 A few criticisms:  Margo does not really come across as a 21st century professional woman - she says things like “horsefeathers” and “glory be;” but you know, her creator is 97 years old. The ending to the novel is also not very surprising.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this sweet-natured romantic comedy. The epilogue is sweet too, and sad. In it Wouk reveals that BSW died, at 90, while he was writing The Lawgiver. They had married in 1945. Betty Sarah Wouk is portrayed in the novel as an incisive critical thinker who suffered no fools. The Lawgiver can be read, in part, as a tribute from the author to his wife, and it is a lovely one.

 Herman Wouk has produced an engaging, funny, fast-paced trifle. I liked it very much; it also made me want to re-read some of his heftier fare, like the excellent The Caine Mutiny.

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