The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem follows one girl’s journey to understand her family through four generations of love, loss, and acceptance.
[Some Spoilers; Mature Audiences]
Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Gabriela and her mother, Luna, have never seen eye to eye. . When Gabriela’s Nona Rosa begins telling her the family history, including a curse on the women of their family marrying husbands who don’t love them, Gabriela gets taken through four generations of secrets that her family has been living on and accepting for years.
When Nona Rosa passes away unexpectedly, Gabriela must depend upon her great aunt Allegra to finish the story her Nona started.
The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is a sprawling story over four generations of the Ermosa family. When we meet Gabriela, she’s telling us that her mother died when she was eighteen. We also know that they didn’t have a very good relationship.
The format of the book and the pacing make it a little hard to get into at first, but slowly, the reader becomes invested in the story that’s being told.
First, Gabriela’s grandmother, Nona Rosa, begins telling her about her mother-in-law and father-in-law and her own arranged marriage to their son, Gabriel. What we get with Nona Rosa is brief tidbits of a story that feels much larger.
After her death, several years pass before Gabriela runs away from her family to stay with her Nono Gabriel’s sister, Allegra.
This is when the story really takes off. Allegra delves into the history of the family, and since she lived in Tel Aviv, she’s almost a bystander to all her family’s drama.
The main theme throughout the novel is how men in the Ermosa family don’t love the women they’re with. It starts with Raphael, Gabriela’s great-grandfather, and his wife Mercada. They are very much partners, but Raphael was in love with another woman that he never got over. Mercada is a selfish, stereotypical hovering mother.
Her pride and joy is Gabriel. When he falls in love with a woman outside their cultural sphere, she and Rapheal forbid him from seeing her, but he does anyway. Eventually his father dies, and Mercada blames Gabriel for his father’s death and uses it as a tool to manipulate him into breaking off his engagement with Rochel.
Mercada marries Gabriel off to Rosa as punishment a year after his father’s death. Rosa is an orphan who, from the age of ten when her parents died, took care of herself and little brother. She cleaned homes for the English when they replaced the Turks in controlling Jerusalem. She learned English and she’s such a hard worker, but she’s not very pretty or the type of woman Gabriel could have married.
Quiet honestly, Rosa (Gabriela’s Nona Rosa) is one of the only characters in the story that I liked. She was earnest and wanted her husband to care for her the way she cared for him. She tried so hard to take care of him, make herself available to him, but he was still lost in the past.
He loved their daughters more than he cared for her, and at times, her jealously showed through, and it was something she was ashamed of.
Her husband Gabriel was a shallow man who never got past losing Rochel, and goes on to have an affair for many years with an “Arab whore” in Beirut. I felt absolutely horrible reading his descriptions of Aisha. It was like she wasn’t a person at all.
The story continues on through the years until we get to Luna and David. Luna is Gabriel and Rosa’s daughter, and she’s Gabriela’s mother. Let me tell you this, she’s the absolute WORST. It was so hard to connect with Luna, probably because the reader knows her from birth and has seen so many times what kind of a brat she can be.
Her husband David is still in love with someone he met in Italy during World War II, so naturally their marriage isn’t a good one. Gabriela recalls hearing her mother talking about the woman who is ruining her marriage and wishing she could throw her naked in the street.
It’s heartbreaking that this cycle has continued for all these women and that their lives are so sour because of it. Given the time period, there’s nothing they can do about it, though. They just have to put on a brave face and then harden themselves against it.
The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is very long and almost tiring at times. There are a few places in the novel where you’re not sure who is narrating. If it’s Gabriela, an omniscient narrator, or even Allegra. I’m not familiar with the cultural divisions of Jerusalem in the early 1900s, so I spent some time Googling certain terms to figure out who a certain cultural group was and their relationship with another group. Jerusalem is a diverse city, and the social hierarchy is very important to the story. I definitely recommend doing a little research about Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews before reading.
Altogether, the book is a very raw look at family, and sometimes the things we cover up or put on a brave face for just to save pride and carry on. Even if you don’t like a character, as a reader, you definitely understand their motivations, no matter how much you might disagree with them.
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Thank you so much to the publisher for an advanced copy of this novel!