In the first sentence of Anna Solomon’s The Book of V., the reader is told to “close the book. Close it now.” We’re then told that “the story’s simple.”
We soon learn that this harried narration is from Lily, a married mother of two young girls in Brooklyn, who’s trying to streamline the biblical story of Esther, an elusive and confounding tale that supplies the novel’s central preoccupation: Can women achieve freedom within patriarchal systems?
The Book of V. is a braided narrative following three women across distinct cultural periods — Esther in ancient Persia, Vee in 1970s Washington, DC, and Lily in 2016 Brooklyn. It’s similar in form to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a book that Solomon describes as an inspiration in the acknowledgements. But while Cunningham refracted the life of the novelist Virginia Woolf through more modern characters, Solomon examines pressing political concerns by breathing new life into a far older text.
By juxtaposing the story of Esther with Vee and Lily, Solomon seems to be asking: What can we learn about the structure of patriarchy and how it works in day-to-day life?
The philosopher Kate Manne would argue that patriarchy subjugates women and that women who resist are violently harassed. Many women, in these systems, are turned into misogynistic enforcers alongside men, but just as many form movements of solidarity and enduring resistance.
The Book V., the previous selection for the Global Citizen Book Club, explores these ideas in depth. In a harrowing section, for example, Esther transforms into a monster when she’s about to be raped by the king. On one level, the scene is a metaphor for the inner strength that women have to draw upon to survive in a brutal system. On another level, the scene captures how women who refuse to be subjugated are seen as monstrous by the broader society and, according to this warped logic, can be attacked.
The story of Vee explores misogyny further, and Lily's plot implies that unfair divisions of household labor and caretaking duties still grant men greater freedom, despite the substantial political gains that women have won over the years. For all its thematic consistency, it would be reductive to describe Solomon’s book as a vehicle for philosophical analysis.
The Book of V. is first and foremost a brisk page-turner that’s whimsical even as it delves into the minds of three women facing existential crises. Lily is overwhelmed by parenthood, has lost the spark in her marriage, and dreams of an affair. Vee is abused by her politician-husband and then slandered in gossip magazines. Esther is trapped by the King of Persia as her community faces escalating violence outside the kingdom walls.
As the book progresses, motifs of daily life keep cropping up: doing laundry, sewing clothes, taking care of children and men, managing schedules and meetings and plans for others. The burdens of domesticity act like a web ensnaring the women, preventing them from living life on their own terms.
Esther’s confinement is the most extreme. She’s under constant surveillance by a swarm of guards, fully cut off from her family. She faces routine violence and humiliation. But even she is able to carve out spaces of freedom. She uses gossip (original meaning: to talk with a close friend) to scale the walls of the kingdom and learn about what’s happening to her uncle, aunt, cousins, and the wider encampment of Jews under attack. She resists and rebuffs the king and his minions. She learns magic and draws on family history to bring an animal back to life.
Vee carves out freedom by having unrestrained sex with a stranger and then starting a career as a writer. A family tragedy unbounds Lily, who feels newly carnal in her exposed state.
Solomon does a remarkable job creating a cast of side characters that illustrate how women have always leaned on one another to resist the daily assaults of patriarchy.
Through conversation, mutual aid, and solidarity, cracks in standard narratives about the glory of men begin to appear. What, for example, happened to Vashti, the former queen whom Esther replaces?
In most tellings, Vashti disappears. But Solomon isn’t interested in a tidy story that does away with the agency of women. Violence, displacement, and dispossession lurk behind the standard histories we’re taught — understanding this whitewashing is key to the future.
When you notice the dropped threads of history — the omissions, the distortions, the motivated reasoning, the lies — entire tapestries unravel. Then you can start over. That’s what happens when Vashti wanders out of a cavernous lair. That’s what happens when Vee gives up on the false promise of legacy. And that’s what happens when Lily finally grapples with the Book of Esther, bringing together three generations of women to think about what it means to be alive.
The Book of V. by Anna Solomon was the September pick for the Global Citizen Book Club. The October pick is The End of Bias: A Beginning by Jessica Nordell.
How does the Global Citizen Book Club work?
Read: Each month, we will handpick a new book to read together, relating to one of our core issues. You can purchase each month's selection at your local bookstore — or, if you're feeling lucky, Global Citizens in the US can enter to win the book here!
Discuss: Each week, we will engage in facilitated discussions with your fellow Global Citizens around major themes, key learnings, and more in our “Global Citizen All-Access” Facebook Group. Join here!
Participate: The following month, we will host a virtual discussion with the author, where you will get the chance to engage and ask questions. You can get a ticket to the event by taking action with Global Citizen and using your points, so keep an eye out on Global Citizen Rewards!