By the mid-1400s, Jews have lived in Spain for hundreds of years—not without persecution—but through their wit and resilience, they have created a thriving community. Granddaughter of a prominent Jew, all Paloma Corcia—better known as Loma—has ever wanted was to be a mother. Until she is old enough for that desire to be met, she assists her Abuelo—Belo—during his travels. Belo, deeply grieving the loss of his wife, finds a worthy companion in his granddaughter as he discovers her mind is full of numbers and wisdom. Loma does what she can to please him, but in her heart, she would give it all up—the clever conversations, the travels to strange places—if it only meant she were happily married and surrounded by children. As persecution of the Jews intensifies, along with Belo’s need to travel to appease the monarchs, Loma begins to wonder if Belo will ever let her go to start a family of her own or if she will be forced to remain by his side until she is no longer eligible or desirable for marriage.
I received this book from the author for the purpose of this review. All comments and opinions are entirely my own.
Anyone who knows me knows I love Gail Carson Levine. She is easily my favorite middle grade author. So when I saw she was sending out ARCs for her latest book, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, I jumped at the chance to request it. I was surprised when my request was accepted and the book arrived in the mail a week later. I now had access to Levine’s newest book six months before anyone else! I was so excited to start reading it over Christmas break.
I’ve never read a story that takes place during the Spanish Inquisition (and I’m honestly not even sure I learned about it in school—or if I did, I don’t remember it), so the subject matter really intrigued me. Levine’s father was Jewish, so she wrote this as well as one of her first novels, Dave At Night, to explore her Jewish heritage. As a Protestant Christian myself, I have a fondness for the Jews as God’s chosen people, so I enjoy learning more about their history when I can.
The story starts with six or seven year old Loma catching the plague. Her grandmother, Bela, gave Loma her amulet, as she believed it would protect her granddaughter from evil spirits. While Loma survives the plague, Bela, tragically, does not. Belo, not nearly as kind and sympathetic as Bela, watches Loma recover, trying to understand why Bela loved her so much. Loma is consumed with guilt—she believes that, having “taken” the amulet from Bela, it is her fault Bela died. I was pulled into the story almost right away, wondering how this guilt, based on a superstition, would consume her as she grew up and how it would affect her relationship with Belo, whether or not he, too, blamed her for Bela’s death. Unfortunately, this inner conflict is resolved within a few chapters. The story continues to show Belo’s developed interest in Loma and the daily lives of the Spanish Jews, but besides that, there isn’t any real conflict for almost 150 pages.
Once that inner conflict was gone, it took me a while to get pulled back into the story. To be honest, I couldn’t tell where it was going. Slowly, Loma grew up, and while I knew she loved to count and spend time with her nieces and nephews, and she was intimidated by Belo and his friends, I didn’t know what her motivation or struggle was, as a character. Finally, around 150 pages in, as I mentioned above, a new conflict arises. After turning eleven, Loma waited patiently for Belo and Papa to arrange a marriage for her as she had watched them do for her older siblings when they became of age time and time again. However, Belo decided he wanted her to continue to be his traveling companion and that he’d find her a good husband later. This crushed Loma as she wanted to be a wife and mother now. She also worried that she wouldn’t be able to marry—there wouldn’t be anyone left!—if Belo waited too long. Now that there was tension in her relationship with Belo—the primary focus of the book—I was pulled back into the story and read the last 2/3 of it within a week. It is unfortunate that the first third of the book took a while to build, but looking back, I understand that Levine was setting up Belo’s and Loma’s relationship and the ins and outs of their religion before the heavy persecution began. Once conflict in the story returned, the pace of the story moved quickly.
There are many aspects of this book that fascinated me, the main one being the friction between the Christians and Jews. This hostility was in no way new to the 1400s, but I think it was especially accentuated during this time period. As a Protestant Christian, it was hard for me to read about the violence toward and persecution of the Jews by the “Christians” (they were actually Catholics). While Catholics do call themselves “Christians”, they in no way reflect how a true believer of Jesus would act, especially during the Spanish Inquisition. The Catholics tainted the name of Jesus by associating themselves with Him while at the same time hurting His chosen people. Because of this, I was pained to read Loma’s thoughts on Christians and their faith. Because she’s absolutely right: how could they claim to worship God while at the same time hurt her people? But that’s just it: they aren’t real Christians, not in accordance to true Biblical teaching. This disparity made the conversations between the Christians and Jews in this book very interesting. Because both were wrong– just in different ways. The Jews believe the Messiah has not yet come, which we know He has. The Catholics believe He has come in Jesus, but that you must earn His salvation and favor, which we know is not true as God’s gift of Jesus’s salvation for us is free. I was struck by how, as represented in the characters’ daily lives, both religions are centered around rituals. In neither instance is there a personal relationship with God.
Something else that stood out to me was Loma’s strong desire to be a mother. In today’s society where feminism runs rampant, it is rare to find a book where the female main character’s foremost desire is to be a wife and mother. I greatly appreciated this perspective as my greatest desire has always been to be a wife and mother as well. For the first time, I related on a deeply personal level to the main character’s struggle. And in a world where female main characters usually have not just one, but two or three options of men to choose from, Loma, more realistically, had obstacles in her path to marriage. This made an even more interesting conflict considering that back then, all girls’ marriages were arranged for them between the ages of eleven and fourteen. Their sole purpose as a woman was to bear children. As Loma was prevented from fulfilling this purpose due to Belo’s interference, she was often looked down on by those around her.
However, I have to admit that, in regard to Loma’s romantic plot, I was a little disappointed. As the book progresses, so does Loma’s relationship with one of the family’s Muslim servants, Hamdun. I don’t remember if Levine ever gives us his age, but as I read, I assumed he was in his mid-late twenties, maybe early thirties. So I could be totally off, but I definitely felt there was potential for romance between Loma and Hamdun, especially as they bonded over dangerous adventures. While I know that a Jew could never marry a Muslim and vice-versa, it at least felt as if their relationship and feelings toward each other were growing fonder as the story advanced. So when they finally parted, I was heartbroken to see them separated. I guess I couldn’t tell if their relationship was supposed to be platonic or not as it wasn’t really clear.
Finally, this book showcased the never-ceasing resilience and courage of the Jews. This is a trait I’ve noticed often throughout my studies of Biblical times as well as the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism, as old as time, is consistently terrible and unjust, but I don’t see a future where it doesn’t exist until Jesus returns and establishes the New Heaven and New Earth. Until then, Jews have never given up and I have great respect to them for it. I felt this resilience in Loma. There were so many times she was scared, shy, insecure and uncertain of herself and her abilities, but she always rose to the challenge in order to protect her family. Even when it came to her personal desire for marriage, she set it aside to serve her grandpa. In our overly-individualistic society, it is rare to find a person willing to sacrifice their dreams for the sake of someone else’s—in fiction or in the real world. I found this trait to be truly inspiring.
In A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, Levine demonstrates that the Jews have never been safe throughout history and how easily friends can turn their backs on one another. However, Levine writes in her foreword: “we all have bad times in our histories, both recent and long ago. Yet here we are.” While this wasn’t my favorite of Levine’s work, it reminded me once again what I love so much about all her books: her strong and brave characters.
In conclusion, I give A Ceiling Made of Eggshells 4 out of 5 stars. The beginning is slow, but the overarching plot, character development and life lessons learned is well worth the journey. It is also a glimpse into a unique time in history. Because of some realistic, but gruesome descriptions of the persecution of the Jews, I recommend this book for ages 12 and up.