Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Last Song, by Eva Wiseman- Review

From Goodreads:
Spain had been one of the world’s most tolerant societies for eight hundred years, but that way of life was wiped out by the Inquisition. Isabel’s family feels safe from the terrors, torture, and burnings. After all, her father is a respected physician in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. Isabel was raised as a Catholic and doesn’t know that her family’s Jewish roots may be a death sentence. When her father is arrested by Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, she makes a desperate plan to save his life – and her own.

The not so secret history buff in me had to have this book as soon as I heard about it, and the cover whore in me agreed.  Although the cover whore in me was thoroughly satisfied, the history buff was not.

The Last Song is a teeny tiny book clocking in at 225 pages, which nowadays is almost novella short.  It's shortness would not have been an issue (I rather like a little book now and again.  It's like a palette cleanser), except for the fact that large amounts of the story was taken up by religious ritual description.  Here's the deal, I expected a historically rich telling of a fascinating moment in history, from a YA perspective (read-requisite love story), with Judaism more a part of the story then the subject of the story.  What I got was a YA telling (read- requisite love story), about discovering Judaism (with a great deal of detailed teaching about ritual), and only a small off handed side of the history of this unique moment in time.

I will grant Wiseman this, religion is a tough subject matter to deal with in an interesting manner, but still do it justice.  However, detailed explanations, delivered as lessons to Isabel (who's only just learning to be a Jew), about ritual and traditions does not storytelling make.  I reviewed The Dovekeeper awhile back, and I had a similar issue with the heavy handedness of all the in depth descriptions of Judaic minutiae.  Although I fully appreciate the importance of the minutiae to the actual practice of the religion, and a certain amount needs to be given to give the reader a flavour of the experience, I disagree that it needs to be part of a story.   After all story telling has many aspects to it, and although teaching something can be a part of it, if it becomes all of it, you have a text book.
Rabbi Abenbilla tied the afikomen, a pice of broken matzo, into a large napkin and gave it to young Smuel.  The boy slung the napkin  over his shoulder and left the room.  When he knocked on the door, requesting entry, the rabbi addressed him. 
"From where do you come?" 
"I come from Egypt," Smuel said. 
"Where are you going?" the rabbi asked. 
"To Jerusalem." 
"What are you taking with you?" asked his father. 
Smuel pointed to the matzo in hi napkin.Then all of us began to chant...

My wish for The Last Song would have been for Wiseman to explore Isabel and her family more as characters rather than practitioners of a religion.  By page 225 I didn't feel as if I knew any of them very well, and so was rather non-plused by ending.  In the end I felt like The Last Song promised more than it delivered, but I'm curious, what are your feelings about religion in fiction?  Do you like it when it's enumerated in detail? Or do you prefer it when it's integrated into a story?  I'm nearing the end of Robin Wasserman's The Book of Blood and Shadow at the moment (coming out today same as The Last Song), and I think she handles religion in a truly masterful way- both instructive and fascinating.  But she uses the characters personal experience and opinions to permeate the discussion about god and practice, and when she gets into minutiae its from a historical perspective and it's pertinent to the story arc. However, The Dovekeepers was hugely successful, so I may be one of very few who finds that way of dealing with it didactic.  What do you think?

The Last Song, by Eva Wiseman
Published by Tundra Books, April 10th 2012
My copy kindly provided by the publisher.
Buy The Last Song on Amazon


  1. Too bad you didn't like this book. Like you I would have picked it up based on the wonderful cover alone.


    1. The cover is really some of the best cover design I've seen in awhile. I especially like that there are no girls in pretty dresses (though I like a good pretty dress, I'd be a liar if I said no), but there's a lot of them in YA today. It's nice to see something different.

  2. I was not disappointed so much by the descriptions of religious ritual (though I agree that there was a lot of explaining, about the cup, and in the scene you quoted). I just felt that, overall, this complex situation merited a better story. And I think it was there, hidden in the story that was told, it just wasn't developed enough? And a lot of it felt too convenient.

    1. I agree about the convenience. Without being spoilery I thought the survival rate was really unrealistic. And yes, the ground work was laid for a better story but never developed. I feel like she got carried away by the religious ritual instead of getting carried away talking about the religious persecution. It was too bad, it had great potential.