Cover image for The book of splendor
The book of splendor
Sherwood, Frances, 1940-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton, [2002]

Physical Description:
348 pages : maps ; 24 cm
Format :


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Frances Sherwood brings to life the experience of the Jewish community during a period of oppression and rebirth. Set in seventeenth-century Prague, The Book of Splendor is an adventure-filled romance stocked with court intrigue and political tension, including the machinations of the rival Ottoman Empire, the religious controversies of Protestantism, and the constant threat of violence to the Jewish community. At the heart of the novel is Rochel, a bastard seamstress who escapes poverty through an arranged marriage to the tailor Zev, but falls in love with Yossel, the Golem created by Rabbi Loew to protect the Jewish community. Meanwhile, Emperor Rudolph II puts the safety of all Prague at risk in his mad bid for an elixir of immortality. The Book of Splendor is an epic tale reminiscent of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, and a love story as unlikely as Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring. Reading group guide included.

Author Notes

Frances Sherwood lives in South Bend, Indiana.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Set in Prague at the opening of the seventeenth century, this ambitious novel blends mysticism, vast political upheaval, and a sexy, sweeping love story that reads like Beauty and the Beast. Stealing characters from history and inventing new ones, the narrative shifts between scenes in the Jewish quarter and at the castle, where Hapsburg emperor Rudolph II--portrayed to hilarious and disturbing effect as a dangerous, manic buffoon obsessed with eternal life--presides. Under threat of attack, Rabbi Loew creates a golem to protect Prague's Jewish population, but this man-creature possesses unexpected abilities to think and feel, and it falls into a steamy love affair with a beautiful orphaned seamstress. The Book of Splendor is another name for the Zohar, a book in the Kabbalah, Judaism's mystical tradition, that explores creation and death, physical and divine love, exile, redemption, and the conviction that nothing is as it appears. Sherwood deftly borrows all of these themes, layering them under a swift, cataclysmic plot and incisive, witty language. The result is a provocative, gripping novel that's part farce, historical adventure, theological meditation, and bodice-ripping romance. Fans of magic realism will love this. --Gillian Engberg

Publisher's Weekly Review

The golem, that legendary monster watchman savior supposedly created by Rabbi Judah Loew in Prague in 1601, has never lost its ability to inspire the creative imagination. Sherwood, whose last novel, Vindication, was a masterful interpretation of the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, here crafts another rich historical fiction, juxtaposing the beleaguered lives of the residents of Prague's Judenstadt with the baroque excesses of the mad, egocentric Hapsberg emperor Rudolph II. As in the legend, Rabbi Loew creates the golem in response to rumors that the Jewish community will be eradicated in a pogrom. In Sherwood's version, the huge figure, miraculously fashioned out of mud from the Vltava River and a secret code embedded in the Kabbalah, is immediately more human and complex than the original. Given the name Yossel, but lacking a tongue and a soul, the giant falls in love with 18-year-old Rochel Werner, a talented seamstress recently married to the community's shoemaker. In counterpoint to the forbidden love story, we read of Rudolph's demented scheme to obtain a potion that will grant him immortality. Brought from London, real-life alchemists Dr. John Dee and sidekick edward Kelley soon find themselves in a feverish race with time to convince Rudolph that they possess the formula. Meanwhile, Rudolph holds the Jewish community hostage since he thinks Rabbi Loew may know the secret to eternal life. Rudolph's well-documented dementia is balanced with the tender love story, even if the latter's resolution seems more wishful than credible in what is on one level a tale of a Jewish community whose right to exist is under continual threat. Sherwood's supple prose and her ability to integrate historical background into a timely and resonant narrative should give this eloquent literary effort popular appeal. 5-city author tour. (July 8) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A young, illiterate Jewess of dubious birth, given to fanciful stories, Rochel is able to escape poverty through an arranged marriage to Zev, a widowed tailor. This domestic scene is played out in the shadow of 17th-century imperial Prague alongside oppression and poverty during the reign of Habsburg Emperor Rudolph II. The emperor, concerned with countless creature comforts and expanding his territories, has decided he needs immortality and sets his alchemists to the task. There is much court intrigue and political tension. The characters include the famous Rabbi Loew, who fashions the man of mud, the Golom of Prague; astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler; the alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelley; and an assortment of spies, lepers, monks, and mountebanks. Prague at this time was the center of Jewish life in Europe, and Sherwood artfully conveys the experiences of the Jewish community there. In addition, she portrays the Islamic Ottoman Empire in the process of fomenting religious controversy among the hatching Protestant movement, the established church, and Czech nationalism. This fine, imaginative historical novel by the author of Vindication, a novel based loosely on the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, is recommended for all libraries. Molly Abramowitz, Silver Spring, MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.