The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is loosely based on the Genesis story of Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and Leah. Daimant fleshes out Dinah’s story, telling it in her first-person point of view while deviating from the Biblical version in significant ways. Dinah provides background on her grandfather Laban; the entrance of Jacob into their lives; Jacob’s marriage to her mother; his subsequent marriages to her three aunts; and their plentiful offspring, consisting of Dinah’s brothers and cousins.
The novel starts out strongly. The focus on women and their activities of weaving, cooking, tending the garden, healing ailments, birthing, and nurturing children is evidence of a caring and supportive network of women in an exclusively woman space. The women cling to their worship of the goddess figures of Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt during the early stages of the transition to monotheism. This is a segregated, patriarchal society in which a woman’s primary function is to birth sons and to assume a subordinate role to the male. But within that framework and within their woman space of the red tent, the women bond, sharing knowledge and body wisdom that is transmitted from mother to daughter, from crone to virgin.
As the only daughter of Jacob and Leah in a bevy of sons, Dinah is singled out for special affection by her mother and aunts/other mothers. They welcome her into the circle of women, initiate her into the inner sanctum of the red tent—the exclusive province of females, embrace her entrance into womanhood with the onset of menarche, train her on midwifery, and teach her the medicinal properties of certain plants and herbs.
All seems to be going in Dinah’s favor until things go horribly wrong. After her husband is slaughtered and Dinah goes to Egypt with her mother-in-law, the novel loses much of its strength. Dinah is forced to relinquish control of her son, befriends a midwife, and becomes known throughout Egypt as a midwife with exceptional powers. She falls happily in love with a carpenter, marries him, and is summoned by the Egyptian vizier to assist in his wife’s delivery of their child. The vizier turns out to be her brother, Joseph. The two then travel together to visit their dying father. Dinah returns to her husband to live the rest of her days in happiness.
The events after Dinah’s arrival in Egypt are rushed and, in contrast with the first part of the novel, time gallops at an unprecedented pace. The women of the red tent are well-rounded and portrayed as unique individuals. The men, however, are flat, never fully developed, and most are portrayed stereotypically as bossy patriarchs. Character development suffers, especially in Egypt where we are introduced to characters with barely a superficial nod. Dinah is portrayed as more acted upon than acting. And her convenient love affair with her carpenter husband reeks of a sentimental mushiness reminiscent of the unrealistic “happily ever after” endings of fairy tales.
Perhaps Diamant’s intention was to demonstrate that the lives of women unraveled after the loss of their woman space in the red tent and all it signified. Perhaps the goal was to show how women’s strength diminished when they were deprived of their female network of support. All well and good. However, in the process of demonstrating this, the novel loses much of what made it compelling and focused in the first place—an unfortunate conclusion to what started off with such strength.
Recommended but with reservations.