The Fairest Among Women is another happy accident. A find in the bargain books section, it’s attractive cover the only prompt for me to browse through it. It started out slow, but the narrative slowly picked up and got me hooked. The story starts with little Rosa moving into an old Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem with her mother and uncle Joseph, no sooner than the previous occupants were driven away as a result of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Rosa lives in the deserted villa with her family and four other Jewish refugees sent to settle the conquered territory. Rosa was a beautiful child, and thus garnered a lot of attention in the neighborhood.
I like the flashbacks to the older character’s lifes. Rosa’s mother Angela and her brother Patrick’s childhood adds just as much spice to the whole story as Rosa’s story. Angela is the unwanted, good for nothing girl child of her parents. When the male son and heir to their father’s saffron fortune is born, all attention is lavished on him and Angela is designated his keeper. Small vignettes like the fact that Patrick, the son had so much need of milk that after he dried out the “amahs” for miles around their neighborhood, he took to drinking straight from the udders of goats. Angela escapes this drudgery and an impending betrothal by running to a kibbutz in Jerusalem where she meets the love of her life, Rosa’s father. Unfortunately, Rosa’s father gets killed before she was even born and Angela is forced to raise her alone. That is, until her brother Patrick comes to live with her after he was orphaned when their parents were killed while sailing to Jerusalem to keep Angela from marrying someone else other than the person she was bethrothed to.
It seems like this book is one tragedy on top of another. But rather than depressing you, it intrigues you into turning the page to find out what becomes of these poor souls. The tragedy not only continues but it escalates as the young Rosa, deemed fairest among women, grows into adulthoold. She goes through three husbands, bears eight children, and balloons to garner another title as the biggest woman in Jerusalem. Her first husband is her uncle, Patrick. She ends up marrying him and bears him eight children. The last one, born with congenital defects finally did him in as he couldn’t accept that he had a child less than perfect. What did he expect, marrying his niece? But, it is not for me to judge, is it? I am just an audience, enrapt.
Even at her heaviest, Rosa does not cause revulsion but rather attracts even more admirers. A memorable vignette is how she killed her diminutive second husband who had a fetish for large women, by rolling over him in her sleep and suffocating him. She goes on to marry a third time; this time a tragic soul and artist who is also a holocaust survivor. She drove him to madness…literally. He ends his days in an asylum.
Woven throughout Rosa’s story is the story of her handicapped youngest child, who had a hump on her back and whose growth was stunted. She also comes to a tragic end, but through it all, Rosa perseveres. When Rosa was a young girl, one of her girlfriends predicted that she would marry four times. This friend or foe, depending on how you look at her is also an occational scene stealer in Rosa’s complicated life. We never find out if the prediction comes true, as Rosa disappears from her old like and it seems moved on to the final phase of her most interesting life. What becomes of her is left to be pondered. A good read that would keep you turning pages, it is full of such vivid descriptions, it is almost like watching a movie.