The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker, is not the book I was expecting. I think it might not be the book a lot of people have been waiting for since The Golem and the Jinni came out in 2013. Instead, it’s a more mature book. It’s the story of what happens after two characters start what they think will be their happily ever after. This is a book about learning to change or not changing, about learning to trust and betrayal, and about learning how to really love people. I wasn’t sure about this book when I started reading it, to be honest. But although this isn’t a perfect book, there are a lot of things about The Hidden Palace that I really enjoyed.
Chava, the golem, and Ahmad, the jinni, are comfortable with their lives after all the excitement in the last book. Chava is a champion baker for a Jewish bakery. Ahmad is a partner in an ironworks where he can exercise his creativity making beautiful things. At night, they walk the streets of New York and talk. That’s when the friction starts to appear. Ahmad slowly grows frustrated with Chava’s reluctance to change the status quo. Chava still feels the need to hide. Her ability to be violent and destructive when pushed terrifies her. So: she bakes, she does what her bosses ask of her, and she walks the city. The pair fight more frequently. They say things to each other that strike at their insecurities, wounding the lovers deeply. I was surprised to see the two characters grow estranged from each other over the long timespan of the novel, from 1900 to 1915.
Meanwhile, Wecker also follows Toby Blumberg and Sophia Winston, two more characters introduced in The Golem and the Jinni. Sophia is still suffering from her affair with Ahmad. She sails off to the Middle East to seek a cure for her extreme cold. Toby, the son of Chava’s best friend, has grown up in a world of adults keeping secrets from him. But, because his mother has to work most of the time, Toby grew up faster than most children these days. While Sophia travels around by camel, donkey, and ship, Toby has his trusty bicycle and a Western Union job that gives him a reason to roam the city. Wecker also introduces us to Kreindel Altschul, a young genius who helped her father create a golem in a tenement apartment before a catastrophic fire kills her rabbi father. The unintended consequences of Kreindel, Toby, Sophia, Ahmad, and Chava’s actions lead to a climax that threatens to destroy all of them, plus some New York real estate.
It takes a long time for all the characters to converge again. So long, in fact, that started to think that The Hidden Palace was paced too slowly. I haven’t entirely changed my mind about this, but I understood why Wecker had to make the first half or so of the book so sprawling. Everything comes together beautifully in the last third of the novel. The melancholy I felt as Chava and Ahmad fell apart vanished when events sped up for an incredible conclusion. Once I hit that last section of the book I couldn’t put The Hidden Palace down. I had to know how everything turned out.
Because The Hidden Palace looks at what happens after happily-ever-after, it is unlike every other love story I’ve ever read. It’s not like the literary novels that look at the end of irreparable relationships. It’s also much more complicated than romance novels. That said, The Hidden Palace shares some of the elements of both genres. Ahmad and Chava’s personalites’ compliment each other. Ahmad pushes Chava to do more than just work. Chava helps Ahmad shed his carelessness and holds him steady. Unfortunately for both, it takes them years—and a lot of fights—to figure out how to appreciate their differences and learn to be together. I loved the ending of The Golem and the Jinni, but I have more confidence that the new happily-ever-after of The Hidden Palace will last.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.