Today I bring you another review for Rosie Amber’s fabulous Book Review Team. Don’t forget to visit her blog, here.
By Light of Hidden Candles by Daniella Levy
In a mud hut in the Jewish Quarter of 16th-century Fez, a dying woman hands her granddaughter a heavy gold ring–and an even heavier secret.
Five hundred years later, Alma Ben-Ami journeys to Madrid to fulfill her ancestor’s final wish. She has recruited an unlikely research partner: Manuel Aguilar, a young Catholic Spaniard whose beloved priest always warned him about getting too friendly with Jews. As their quest takes them from Greenwich Village to the windswept mountain fortresses of southern Spain, their friendship deepens and threatens to cross boundaries sacred to them both; and what they finally discover in the Spanish archives will force them to confront the truth about who they are and what their faiths mean to them.
At times humorous, at times deeply moving, this beautifully written and meticulously researched book will appeal to anyone interested in the history of Inquisition-era Spain, Sephardic Jews, or falling in love.
“Engaging characters, a 500-year-old family mystery, and romance — what more could a reader want? I had a hard time putting it down!”
– Maggie Anton, award-winning author of the Rashi’s Daughters trilogy
“A well-researched and engaging debut — By Light of Hidden Candles is an enchanting read!”
– Barbara Stark-Nemon, author of multiple-award-winner Even in Darkness
“Daniella Levy’s first historical novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, includes many attractive aspects: main characters who transcend our expectations, a mystery originating in Inquisition-era Spain and Morocco, a touch of chaste romance, and a whiff of magical realism. Alma Ben-Ami doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of the contemporary religious Jewish girl in New York: with a healthy dose of sass and spunk, she confidently claims her religious observance while taking risks to forge an independent path and fulfill a mission passed down through the centuries by the women in her family. She partners in this effort with a young Spanish student with his own family mysteries to solve; add to the mix the fact that he is a Catholic considering the priesthood, and the plot complications multiply. Moving back and forth in time throughout the novel, Levy respectfully navigates the sensitivities of religious boundaries, the delicacies of falling in love, the demands of family honor and loyalty, and the complicated history through which the generations of characters in the book travel. She evokes the rich legacy of Sephardic Jewish Spain, leading her young characters to meaningful, life-affirming answers. A well-researched and engaging debut, By Light of Hidden Candles is an enchanting read.”
– Barbara Stark-Nemon, author of multiple award winner Even in Darkness
“Engaging characters, a 500-year-old family mystery, and romance – what more could a reader want? I had a hard time putting it down!”
– Maggie Anton, award-winning author of the Rashi’s Daughters trilogy
“A shiny gem of a novel that seamlessly explores the harrowing history of the Spanish Inquisition with the very contemporary quest of two university students to resolve the mysteries of their families indelibly scarred across centuries by religious persecution. The unexpected twists, roadblocks and triumphs are an inspiration to all amateur genealogists who have sought to unravel their own family sagas.”
– Doreen Carvajal, author of The Forgetting River
“By Light of Hidden Candles… blends history, a purpose from the past, and the evolution of a modern relationship into its web of intrigue with a tale that is especially vivid… The blend of historical quest and modern-day confrontation is lively and well done… [especially recommended] for audiences who enjoy thought-provoking blends of spiritual examination, interpersonal interactions and growth, history’s effects on the present, and the experiences that bring ancestral history to rest in a compromise that follows two very different new adults in their strange and revealing journey.”
– D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
“This debut from author Levy is part history lesson and part love story that spans from the Spanish Inquisition to present-day Manhattan. Levy provides plenty of detail for the history lover about being Jewish in today’s world and over the centuries as well as a sweet and poignant love story for romance fans. A story that is often funny, always intriguing, and at times suspenseful.”
– Library Journal
“I’d recommend By Light of Hidden Candles to anyone who enjoys historical romances, gentle mysteries, and a realistic depiction of the challenges of conflicting religious beliefs… I sympathised with [Alma’s] conflict even while cheering for the young lovers. And really – who wouldn’t love five hundred years of star-crossed romance and a mystery to solve?”
– Barb Taub, member of the Rosie Amber review team: barbtaub.com
About the author:
Daniella Levy is an Orthodox Jewish mother of three, rabbi’s wife, writer, translator, self-defense instructor, bridal counselor, black belt in karate, and certified medical clown–and she still can’t decide what to be when she grows up. Her articles, short fiction, and poetry have been published in both English and Hebrew in publications such as Writer’s Digest, The Forward, Pnima Magazine, Reckoning, Newfound, the Rathalla Review, and the Jewish Literary Journal, as well as online platforms such as Kveller, Aish.com, JWire, Ynet News, and Hevria.
Born in New York, Daniella immigrated to Israel with her family as a child. She wrote her first book at age ten and completed her first full-length novel at fourteen. Her Talmud studies notes from high school consisted of a series of silly dramatizations of Jewish sages yelling at each other. She’s pretty sure her teacher would have been horrified.
She blogs at LetterstoJosep.com about Judaism and life in Israel, and at RejectionSurvivalGuide.com about resilience in the face of rejection and criticism. Connect with her online at Daniella-Levy.com.
Thanks to NetGalley, to Rosie Amber (from Rosie’s Book Review Team. If you’re an author looking for reviews, check here) and to the author for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
This novel fits into several genres. It is a romance (a clean or sweet romance. I’m not sure if the same that there are Christian books, there is also a category for Jewish books, but if there is, it would fall into that as well), where fate seems to conspire to unite the two protagonists whilst their faith separates them (Alma, the young American woman is an Orthodox Sephardic Jew, while Manuel, the Spanish young man is not only Catholic but he is considering priesthood). It is also a historical novel. Both protagonists have always wondered about their past, their genealogy and family histories, and are fascinated by some stories about their ancestors that have been passed down for generations although with little in the way of evidence to confirm them. They end up joining a project to do some family research in the historical archives in Madrid and they pair up as a team. Whilst we follow their research and investigation, with alternating chapters in the first-person, told from each one of the protagonists points of view, we also have some chapters set in the XV century in Spain (1492), told in the third person, from the point of view of Miriam, a Jewish young woman whose father’s dealings with conversos (Jews who had converted to Catholicism) gets him into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition (yes, Monty Python get a mention, don’t worry). The book is also a book about religious and personal identity and faith, and it goes into a fair amount of detail about the Jewish faith, not only about customs but also about points of faith and doctrine. For both, Alma and Manuel, their faiths are fundamental parts of who they are and they are both determined not to allow their friendship to cross boundaries and develop into something that is impossible if they are to remain faithful to their beliefs. I think you probably can guess where this is going.
The characters are likeable, quirky (especially Alma. Manuel seemed too good to be true at times, but then, male characters in romances sometimes are, and this is not a story full of rogues), and easy to empathise with. Alma’s family and her interaction with them feel real and give the reader a good sense of the joys and the struggles of trying to keep the tradition alive despite the pressures of the modern world. Manuel’s mother is very peculiar, although everything is explained later, and he does not have other contacts or close family, so his chapters focus mostly on his doubts about his faith and on his relationship with Alma. Their interaction is sometimes funny (rather than Romeo and Juliet this is more like Much Ado About Nothing), sometimes poignant, and sometimes deep and reflective. They can be at times naïve (they have both lived what appear to be quite sheltered lives, despite their very different backgrounds and circumstances), unaware, and blinkered (there is much made of the prejudice in Spain, both in the past and now, but they don’t seem aware of any issues in that respect in the USA), but they are devoted to their families and their projects, they are well-liked by all they come in contact with, and meet interesting people whose stories illustrate multiple aspects of living according to a religious faith.
The novel travels with the characters, providing a wonderful background for the story (New York, Granada, Madrid, Lorca, Cartagena), without long and tiresome descriptions, just enough detail to fire up the imagination and transport the readers there.
There is mystery (well, there are several mysteries) and coincidences, luck, and fate play a huge part in the story. I don’t think many readers will be surprised by what happens, although, like in many romances, the beauty is in the detail, the process, and in seeing how things will come together in the end. And yes, the ending is satisfying.
I would recommend this novel to readers who love romances with a big dose of both fate and faith, who like clean novels (no swear words, no sex), are interested in the Jewish faith and its history, and enjoy the company of warm-hearted characters who deserve the best of luck.
Thanks to Rosie, to the author, and to NetGalley, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click and REVIEW.
And, of course, how could I resist!