The story begins in 1899. A man commissions a life-like golem to be created for him with the expectation that it be his wife. He smuggles the golem onto a ship headed from Europe to Ellis Island. En route, he wakes the golem, but a few days later he dies, leaving the golem alone and confused in New York City. A rabbi sees the golem wandering the streets, realizes what she is, and takes her in. He names her Chava and helps her learn how to live without a master.
Meanwhile, in a New York neighborhood called Little Syria, a metalworker is astonished when he is repairing a jar and inadvertently releases a Jinni. The jinni is freed from the jar but wears an iron bracelet that shows that he is still bound to a wizard. He has lost much of his memory and many of his powers, and is trapped in human form. The metalworker takes him on as an assistant, and names him Ahmad.
Most of the book involves the separate lives of Chava and Ahmad as they struggle to adjust to their new lives. Chava has no master, and because she is imbued with a deep need to serve a master, she struggles with a compulsion to meet the needs of everyone around her. She is also terrified that if she feels too threatened, or thinks that someone else is threatened, she may become uncontrollably violent, which is an extra problem because she is very strong. While Chava is almost crippled by her sense of responsibility, Ahmad feels none at all. He craves freedom above all else. He does what he wants, when he wants, with no sense of how his actions affect other people. He's not malicious, but he's incredibly oblivious, impulsive, and selfish.
I loved this book, but not so much for the love story. I loved the mythologies, the settings, and the characters. The neighborhoods were incredibly detailed and vivid and interesting. The cultural and religious communities felt real and fascinating. I love books that let me see into another world, and this book gave me that feeling many times. The characters were all mesmerizing. I felt like I was in each setting, meeting these real people.
The reason this book gets an 'A-' instead of 'A+' is that a lot of the book's resolution involves Ahmad's capacity for change. I felt that he developed this capacity rather abruptly and I didn't fully believe in it. Maybe this is due to my own cynicism, or maybe the author was just a little too good at creating an amoral character. I did like it that Ahmad's development made me think, and made me want to read the book again to see what clues I had missed along the way. I also liked the idea that both Chava and Ahmad need more balance in their lives, with each being the other's opposite.
As a historical novel, this book earns an 'A+'. As a love story, my initial response is that it earns a 'B' – but I keep thinking about it, and marveling at its gradual, subtle development, and that haunting, thoughtful quality is making me bump the grade up every time I think about it again. I guess I'll have to re-read it (yay!). This quote sums up the romantic element, as well as, in a broader sense, the entire struggle of Chava and Ahmad to find their own inner balance, and the delicate, fragile optimism of the book:
Maybe there was some middle ground to be had, a resting place between passion and practicality. She had no idea how they would find it; in all likelihood they'd have to carve it for themselves out of thin air. And any path they chose would not be an easy one. But perhaps she could allow herself to hope.