Horn, Dara. (2013). A Guide for the Perplexed. W. W. Norton & Company; New York.
Before I wrote this review, I resisted reading other people’s interpretations of A Guide for the Perplexed – though I would encourage the reader to make use of additional information sources. I admit that I was myself perplexed at points throughout this novel. When I picked it up at my local library, I had no idea that it would be so heavily focused on Jewish doctrine and philosophy. Given my limited background in this subject area, I had many ‘wait, what?’ moments and had to resist re-reading entire chunks of text.
However, the book also explores some fascinating concepts around technology, free will, and theoretical physics. It is actually the second book in a series, detailing the lives of sisters Josie and Judith after the story of their parents ends in String Theory: The Parents Ashkenazi. However, reading this first novel is not a prerequisite for understanding Guide for the Perplexed. I enjoyed the action-heavy plot and occasionally over-dramatic characters throughout Guide for the Perplexed, regardless of extensive back story and deep second meanings.
To my reading, the central focus of this book was the theme of siblings. There are three overlapping stories in the novel, all of which reference siblings rivalries, love, and interactions. Tying these stories together is the Genizah technology which the brilliant savant Josie codes to store and catalogue every detail of a person’s life throughout their smartphone. Since I’m hard-pressed to outline the exact relationship between these story lines, I’ll refer you to the excellent review in The New York Times by Jami Attenberg:
The Genizah also leads to the book’s two other narrative threads, both inspired by real-life people: the 12th-century Jewish philosopher and physician Moses Maimonides, whose “Guide for the Perplexed” explores the relationship between faith and reason, and the 19th-century Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter, who (before he became a leader in the American Jewish community) gained academic fame for his 1896 discovery in Cairo of the world’s best-known genizah: a synagogue’s storage room for documents that, for religious reasons, can’t be thrown away (Attenberg, September 27th, 2013).
If you pick up this book for some summer reading, you will probably find it an enjoyable read with lots of thoughts to reflect upon. Be prepared for an engaged reading, however, and don’t be shy in looking up background articles like this one to fill yourself in on additional details.