Monday, August 25, 2008

The Red Tent (or, as I like to call it, "Blasphemy, Sacrilege, and a Bunch of Other Garbage")

With the popularity of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, my conscience prods me to share my very strong feelings against it. I like books. I love a good story. I can put up with a little bit of inappropriate material in a book when I am captivated by the characters. Even books that aren't particularly well written I'll read and enjoy for whatever they have to offer. So I was surprised to find a book that stirred up such feelings of loathing. Hatred with a capital H, even. After the first 50 pages I was so disgusted that I very nearly didn't finish the rest. But it had come highly recommended so I persevered for my friend's sake. And now I'm glad I did so I can rant about it here.

But first, a little background with the story. Diamant's material is taken from the story of Dinah in the book of Genesis. Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, is defiled by Shechem who then wants to marry her. In retribution, her brothers require all the men of the city to be circumcised. Simeon and Levi attack while the men are recovering, slaughter ensues, and Dinah is rescued. Diamant tells this story with a different spin -- Dinah wasn't raped by Shechem, she loves him and goes with him willingly. But more central to the story is the red tent; the special menstrual tent set aside where the women come together each month to rest from their normal work, pamper each other, celebrate their womanhood, and increase their bonds of friendship.

This look at the private lives of the women in Jacob's household could have been very compelling (as Orson Scott Card treated it in his Women of Genesis series). But the fundamentals of Diamant's characters were so off the mark that I wondered if we were even talking about the same people! So many things were just plain wrong -- not just misunderstood, but completely factually incorrect. A little tweak here and there isn't a big deal, but her errors were so prolific that sometimes I wondered if she's read the same Bible I have! But I'll get into that later.

Now, you must understand that I am approaching this book from a Judeo-Christian background with the added perspective of being LDS. These perspectives include a belief in prophets -- righteous men who are called of God, obey His commandments, and further His work on the earth. This deeply colors my response to this novel, and if you don't share the same perspective you probably won't be as bothered by it.

There were a lot of things I took issue with, but I've narrowed it down to my biggest four.

#1. Holy tons of sex talk! Dinah and Shechem get together in a laughable manner that goes something like this: Boy sees girl. Girl sees boy. Time stands still. Without a word they go hide out and make love for days on end, united in bonds of passion so strong you are supposed to forget they're complete strangers. Riiiiiiight. And if that isn't ridiculous enough, the scene is repeated later in Dinah's life and we're supposed to believe -- again -- that this is how true love happens. It makes me wonder if Diamant has any idea what a real relationship consists of. But Diamant doesn't stop with her love scenes. The whole book is filled with sex talk, including all kinds of sexual perversions that alternated between making me ill and making me mad. Come on, who needs to read that?

#2. If you believe the Bible, as I do, then you believe that the major players in Genesis were covenant people of God and therefore were held to His high standards of worthiness. And yet, Diamant portrays them as being idolaters, lustful, and guilty of serious sins right and left (including some of the sexual perversions mentioned earlier). Not only that, they apparently have no sense of guilt or concern for breaking God's laws, as well as no real faith or religiosity. Except for their devotion to their idols. Wait, did I say idols? Because if there's one thing the Old Testament makes clear, I'm pretty sure it's that God doesn't tolerate idolatry. Huh. And I won't even begin to go into her portrayal of Isaac and Rebekah! Wow! Fiction I can appreciate. But I have no tolerance for mean-spirited slander. I can't help but make the comparison again with Orson Scott Card's novels. While I don't agree with everything in Card's portrayals, at least he paints his characters as good people who are sincerely trying to do what's right. They aren't perfect, and their flaws are glaringly obvious sometimes, but they are growing in their faith and devotion to each other and to their God. On the other hand, all of Diamant's men are despicable, her women aren't much better, and there is no hint of the faith that made them so remarkable. Which brings me to my next big issue.

#3. The feeling I got was that Diamant was so concerned with turning the story of Genesis on its head that she didn't care whether her version had any truth to it. Not just, "Let's try a more interesting interpretation," but, "Let's be as shocking and controversial as possible." I don't have a problem with experimenting with the story. This is fiction after all. But Diamant's method of trying to push it as far as possible comes across as very contrived and manipulative. It's not reinventing, it's forcing -- and that just makes it feel false. It was a little easier to enjoy the story after she left the pages of Genesis and followed the rest of Dinah's fictional life in Egypt. At that point the story lost it's manipulated feeling and was more interesting. Unfortunately, this departure didn't come until the end of the book, and it wasn't enough to redeem it. And just for good measure, Diamant brings Joseph in at the end and we see that he is a proud, arrogant bisexual with pedophilia tendencies. Nice. Because we needed one last jab at the prophets, thanks.

#4. A lot of women who love The Red Tent (my friend included) only focus on the sisterhood aspect of it. But I didn't think that theme was strong enough to make up for all the other garbage. In fact, her portrayal of the women is another big complaint of mine. Continuing the manipulation discussed in #3, Diamant was also falsely imposing 20th century feminist ideology on this ancient story. Not just letting it creep in a little bit. I mean a full blown campaign. Hence, all the women are powerful and obsessed with sex from the moment they enter puberty, and almost all the men turn out to be slimy, selfish pigs. I have no problem with celebrating womanhood and motherhood and sisterhood. I think that's great. But I do have a problem with doing it in the context of glorifying sexual perversions, and degrading prophets of God and their wives. That's not celebrating womanhood: That's debasing it by robbing us of our connection to deity that comes through righteous and virtuous living. I would love to see these great women portrayed as the noble daughters of God they were, but instead Diamant gives us weak, impotent shadows by comparison.

I could go on, but I've already spent too much time on a novel that doesn't deserve all the hype. In my opinion, there is nothing redeeming in The Red Tent, unless you're just looking to have some rousing discussion at a book club!


  1. Holy moly, this sounds like garbage. I'm not a big fan of overwhelming sexual content (especially when it sounds like it's pretty nasty stuff), so that aspect of it is a deterrent for me. In fact, this entire book sounds like it wouldn't be something I want to read at all. I don't really enjoy books that make all men out to be evil, perverse idiotic monsters since men who are like that are pretty rare. Feels like some bitter woman author getting a kick out of mocking all things masculine.

    I really like Card's Women of Genesis series, so maybe I'll just stick with that. I wonder when he'll ever finish the second one about Rachel and Leah.

  2. It's been several years since I read this book... so I don't remember a lot of details but I do remember absolutely loving it. My mom gave it to me because she thought it was wonderful and I read it and then passed my copy around to several friends of mine. I haven't read Card's Women of Genesis so I'll have to peruse that sometime too.

  3. Princess Jen - I hope you can dig deep in your memory to share what you loved about it. I am so baffled by this book's popularity, and would appreciate some insights into why it has attracted so many fans. What am I missing??

  4. So happy to read your review. I had a good friend recommend it a couple of years ago and I couldn't make it past the second chapter because of the sexual content and the way the prophets were portrayed. Maybe I'll pick up Card's book instead.

  5. I am sorry you had to pervert your mind in order to give us your take on it, but thanks for sacrificing for us. I will NOT pick it up.
    I loved your post, Caren. Thanks


  6. Jeez, it makes me mad (and a little sick to my stomach) just reading your review! I have read Card's books and did enjoy them.

  7. (Intro: friend of Rachel Lucas, found you through her. LOVE this blog.)

    Thanks for rehashing all the bad feelings I've had about this book. I remember being a little conflicted because I thought it did have a sisterly feel to it, but all I can remeber now about it was that it had a load of sex and ugly people. I think Diamante got too caught up in making a "real" portrayal of these people, but in the process completely dismissed the only record of them we have.

  8. I read the book also, just as a courtesey to a friend and I feel exactly the same way. I was embarassed that I actually finished reading it, and speechless at the way our Lord is portrayed, as well as His relationship with Isaac, Jacog, Joseph, etc. I cannot still get over how Rebeka was protrayed as a mystic witch!!! The fact that my church is using this in thier book club offends me horribly, however, I have the Almighty God on my side on this one and I look at this as an opportunity to point out the true message of the book: the re-writing of history to suit a New Age mystical feminist agenda.