Book Review

Craving Flight by Tamsen Parker

At least six different people in three different forms of media have contacted me to ask, “HAVE YOU READ THIS?!” But in a good kind of way, not in a “No, really, I need to tell you about the chocolate pie,” kind of way.

This novella is a compelling, immersive reading experience, and I mean that in all the best definitions of both words. I loved the immersion into modern orthodoxy, and the ways in which the heroine struggles to get things right, to keep traditions and facets of faith in the right way, determined to persevere in the face of neverending censure.

BDSM, I have to say, is not my thing. I’ve read enough of it to understand some of the nuance, and the role in which knowledge, understanding and permission and consent play in any BDSM scene, and I understand that it is deeply enjoyable (pun intended) for those who practice it. But it’s not my thing, or not my kink, to be more specific. I can read about it but it’s not the biggest draw of a particular plot line for me.

I should summarize. Zipporah is thirty-seven, and became Orthodox later in life, after her first marriage failed. Zipporah has suppressed a lot of her own desires, from her desire for more religious observance in her daily life, to her desire for submission and pain play in her sexual life. When her friend, the rabbi’s wife, matches her up with Elan, who runs the butcher counter at the local grocery, and they marry, Zipporah has to reveal the vulnerability of both her desires and the mistakes she makes that reveal her imperfections.

In this story, Zipporah’s desire for submission and her need to be dominated sexually were integral to her character, and couldn’t be extracted from the narrative. What I found particularly fascinating were the subtle parallels between some of the tenets of her Orthodox observance and her role as a submissive in her sexual life with her new husband. To outsiders, hiding one’s hair beneath a wig or scarf, or being untouchable during menses might be seen as denigrating and demeaning – just as some describe BDSM practice using the same terminology.

For Zipporah, however, her observances were meaningful because she chose them. She wasn’t born into an observant, Orthodox family – in fact her parents treat her as if she’s still going through a very inconvenient phase that she’ll recover from, maybe soon if they’re repeatedly clear in how unacceptable they find her choices. The Orthodox around her in her neighborhood are sometimes just as unwelcoming and cruel to her, because Zipporah is absent minded and often deep in thought regarding her studies as a professor, and she doesn’t always get the very specific codes of conduct right, and makes mistakes like accidentally using the dairy ladle in the chicken soup. But Zipporah chooses anyway, persevering despite the rejection and censure, and choosing repeatedly each time she wakes up to wrap her hair, to keep kosher, to observe the sabbath, etc. Her choice and consent are integral to her life in her religious community, and in her desire for domination.

Another parallel I liked: Zipporah is looked down on a bit because she’s so studious and often has her “head in the clouds,” to quote the story, whereas her husband’s brothers are constantly studying Torah, living admired lives as scholars, and her husband seems to regret having left his own study to run his family’s butcher counter.

Zipporah’s decision to tell her husband what she likes sexually is brave, but it pays off marvelously. Elan is not only familiar at domination, he’s a toy-owning, rope-braiding, intricate-scene-building expert. But of course having what she wanted sexually doesn’t make her marriage or her life outside of the bedroom any easier.

There were some repetitive elements that I found frustrating and confusing. For example, the sexual domination followed a repeating pattern of pain, sobbing, release, orgasm, and intercourse. Zipporah’s crying and sobbing out the internalized hurts of her daily life was part of their sexual relationship, and it bothered me that her emotional release was mostly limited to that one area of interaction.

But the ending was what bothered me most. The majority of the novella is nuanced and subtle, with a slowly building tension and an equally deliberate pace that introduces the reader to Zipporah’s life in her community, in her classroom, in her apartment, and in her choices to remove herself from her upbringing after her divorce and follow her desires to live a very observant life. There are a lot of emotional slights and hurtful moments that she absorbs, and she keeps going – I liked that about her. But in the end, those hurts weren’t sufficiently addressed and the resolution was too quick for me. The black moment seems to be devastating and terrible in one moment, and then easily moved beyond in the next because hey, that’s the end of the book already.

I’m struggling not to spoil this, so I’ll explain my problems but hide them below.

Show Spoiler

I thought that the hero showed up with too little too late. He should have stood up for his wife before, he should have explained himself more earlier, to her and to his family. I didn’t have enough demonstration of his promised changes of behavior to believe they were permanent.

Part of the tension rests on the fact that Zipporah and Elan marry after a short courtship, and don’t know each other well at all. I wanted to believe the best of him, but because I was so very intimately acquainted with Zipporah’s thoughts given the first person narration, and because he promised to change and then the book ended, I was unsure of and unsatisfied with the ending.

I wish there had been more about Elan, more room for him to reveal himself a little. Zipporah’s uncertainty about him, as I mentioned, was important, but I wanted to know how he knew so much about being a dominant, how he understood so quickly what it was she asked for sexually. He’s a great dominant, and a compelling character. And I appreciated that he understood Zipporah, and not in a, “I can magically sense your submissive nature with my magic peen that has its own sense of smell” kind of way.

He clearly understand what she wanted, and what she liked, because she TOLD him. But his degree of fluency and familiarity was puzzling because there was no questioning of why on Zipporah’s part, at least, not that she voiced aloud. Why did he know? Was there a line I missed that explained it better? Why did he know how and how did he have all the tools? What was with the rope expertise? Is there some intricate string tying involved in kosher butchery?

The story gains additional dimension through the multiple ways in which Zipporah learns to be her true self, even though her daily transformation and evolution are difficult every time. The tension grows as she worries if her husband, and his community, could come to accept her and value her without demanding that she change. Zipporah’s observance is important to her, and she demonstrates how much she values her life in her community with each ritual she performs. Her deliberate choice is part of what makes her a powerful heroine, and her character’s constant exploration of each piece of her observance allows the reader to better understand her and her religious life, and the reasons and tradition behind her rituals.

All of the people who told me about this novella were right, though: it’s very, very much worth reading. It’s satisfying and compelling and emotionally rich in both the emotional sense, but also in a cultural, almost world-building sense.

NB: Currently this novella is free, so if you’re curious, grab it now! 

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Craving Flight by Tamsen Parker

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  1. 1
    Lozza says:

    I agree- I felt like the setting and Tzipporah’s relationship to her faith and her new community were the best parts of this story (and they were FANTASTIC- all that stuff gets an A+ rating from me, I loved it), whereas the romance itself was the weak point.
    Re: Elan’s expertise, I also found that really frustrating! At one point she asks if he’s done this before, and as far as I can tell (because there weren’t dialogue tags and I wasn’t always sure who was talking when) he basically responded with “I don’t want to talk about it but the short answer is yes.” (And then he says something about having a liberal Rabbi)
    To me, that line felt like it was setting up a reveal for later in the story… but then it never came. I really wanted to know whether this was something that had been a part of his first marriage, whether he’d found a way to read about it, whether it turns out Rabbi and Bina are kinky too… It was also never entirely clear to me how important the kink was to Elan- I thought the role it played for Tzipporah was clear and understandable, but I never got a satisfactory sense of whether this was something Elan needed just as badly, one of many things he enjoyed but not requisite for enjoyment, or something that he did primarily because he was interested in pleasing his partner.
    I’ve definitely been recommending this book, and I really enjoyed it, but I also felt like there were a number of threads that were cut off a little prematurely.

  2. 2
    SB Sarah says:

    It was also never entirely clear to me how important the kink was to Elan.

    YES – exactly! He had so much knowledge and equipment and yet there was no explanation of why, or how.

  3. 3
    JoAnn says:

    Great review!
    I was also very frustrated by the lack of backstory about Elan’s past experience with BDSM. I got the same impression as Lozza – that at some point we’d get some big reveal about the Rabbi and Bina, or about Elan and his first wife. Frustrating!

  4. 4
    kkw says:

    Having once scoured the city for a kosher leg of lamb for a Passover Seder, I can tell you that there is some complicated story about a tendon that has to removed because Jacob once fought an angel (I understand nothing about religion, it is true) and it makes for an expensive cut of meat that comes trussed up in kitchen twine in a truly complex and beautiful fashion that looks like something on a Joey Hill cover (I also understand nothing about BDSM) so I am thinking that there really is a legitimate crossover of job related skills.

  5. 5
    Vasha says:

    So, it sounds like this novella should be a novel, with more development for Elan and a less rushed ending. I have read some novellas where it felt like the author saw a deadline closing in on them and just stopped, maybe tacking on a hurried ending. The publishing climate nowadays seems to put a lot of pressure on authors to write and publish fast, which not all of them are capable of, however skilled as wordsmiths. Mind you, some markets have always rewarded speed, but I get the impression things may be getting worse.

  6. 6

    This would have been a better novel than novella. I agreed with all you said, and my biggest issue with this story was the rushed ending. We just didn’t have enough time to develop that huge climax. It would have been a deeper reading experience with the backstory on Elan’s skills as a Dom, though that would be hard to do in the first person POV.

    Also, if I ever wanted a story that explains the concept of a b’shert, one’s destined love, this might be it. After all, what are the odds Elan’s going to find two submissive women to marry and dominate, without a little Divine Intervention?[g]

  7. 7
    JoAnn says:

    @Vasha – This novella doesn’t appear to be the result of pressure from a publisher or any rush on the authors part. According to the forward:
    “This novella is the product of the Bring Out Your Kink – Bound by Ink writing event sponsored by the Goodreads BDSM Group. Members provided a photo and letter to inspire writers to create an original story. Writers picked the prompt that spoke to them most.”
    The author then provides a description of the picture and the actual letter she chose to write about. Think this may have been a writing exercise that turned into a publishable short story.

  8. 8

    It seems like there are a lot more novellas out there lately (at least, I’ve been reading more lately) and they all seem to be suffering from the same issue. Authors are trying to tell bite sized stories that should be much longer. I can’t begin to imagine why they think that stories like this (and like many of the ones I’ve read recently) would work as novellas. It just boggles the mind. I’ve read 8 novellas in the last week and only one of them worked as a novella and did not need to be longer to feel like a full story.

  9. 9

    Enjoyed your review very much. One thing I don’t understand about Elan is where and how did an Orthodox Jewish man get any kind of sexual experience, let alone learn to be a dom, outside of marriage because I am almost 100% certain that Orthodox Jews, unless they are converts, are raised to be abstinent before marriage and steps are taken so that both men and women are virgins when they marry.

    Sarah, you wrote: “But in the end, those hurts weren’t sufficiently addressed and the resolution was too quick for me. The black moment seems to be devastating and terrible in one moment, and then easily moved beyond in the next because hey, that’s the end of the book already.”

    I think there is a very serious trend among romance writers to rush into publication. I would love it if the influential SB addressed this. I think if a writer wants people to spend their hard-earned money on their books, then the writers owe it to the public to produce a well-written and thought through book that has also been professionally edited.

    One of the ways authors rush into publication is by choosing to write what they consider to be a novella but is really not one. A novella has to be one of the most challenging things to write because it demands that all plot lines be resolved in only so many words.

    A book such as this, with too many questions left unanswered, is not a novella, but an incomplete novel. I have to question if the book was professionally edited because it seems to me that any editor worth the money paid would have caught all the flaws you mention.

  10. 10
    Jami says:

    @Gloriamarie Amalfitano – I haven’t read the book so I can’t say – but maybe he read about it a lot. In Judaism the woman’s sexual satisfaction is so important that Rabbis have written laws on how many times a year a man, according to his job and only with his wife’s permission, must have sex with his wife. A very Orthodox Rabbi even wrote “Whatever gives your wife an orgasm you must do. If she only gets off on anal sex, you must have anal sex with her. But you are not allowed to orgasm anywhere but her vagina.” I’m paraphrasing a bit but that is what he wrote.

  11. 11
    LisaC says:

    I enjoyed this story a lot. I like to read some BDSM stuff, but frankly, I found all the rope tying descriptions boring as hell. What would have really been a super hot scene for me is if Elan had let Tzipporah give him oral sex. She wanted to, but he refused because of his fear he wouldn’t be able to hold off orgasm. But, if that had ever been a scene in this book, even without his orgasm, that to me would have been 10 times hotter than all the rope tying.

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