"Rebekah" tells the intimate life's story of the Old Testament woman of the same name: wife of Isaac, mother of Jacob and Esau. The woman who is so widely familiar to anyone who's ever attended Sunday school is also so little known. Orson Scott Card, acting as historian and believer as well as novelist, uses a few chapters from the book of Genesis as the jumping-off point in a quest to imagine the story of Rebekah's life. What did she go through that would eventually lead a real, flesh-and-blood woman to have the faith she had, but also to commit her famous deception of her prophet-husband by jockeying her favorite son into the inheritance in place of Esau, the rightful heir?
After "Sarah," the first in series-happy OS Card's "Women of Genesis" series, I had been a little disappointed. Card has long been trying to overcome his sci-fi fame to direct some attention to other genres like his religious-themed novels. He often does this by blurring the lines between the two, adding religious miracle to fantasy and science fiction on the spectrum of speculative fiction. However, even with such as "Stone Tables", he had succeeded brilliantly in showing he could drive a historical religious novel with no traditional sci-fi or fantasy theme with the same gripping character-driven plotting that has made his sci-fi novels so well-loved. Unfortunately, "Sarah" seemed like something of a misstep, where the good and happy characters were brightly delineated from the evil and miserable ones, at the expense of a compelling story. But be warned, anyone who has so far let the first episode's flaws prevent them from picking up Round Two. In "Rebekah," Card has regained his balance and is in top form again. This time, the bad guys behave pretty well and the good guys get pretty bad, everyone struggles, and any moral clarity has to be well-earned if it can be come by at all. Although the difference could be blamed on the source material, since the novels follow a mandate of at least loose consistency with the relevant passages from the biblical Genesis, there is still a clear distinction in choices made by the author. After all, "Sarah" avoided the most difficult, and juiciest, story opportunity by ending right before Abraham's attempt to sacrifice Isaac, while Rebekah's toughest moment in the afore-mentioned "switcheroo" is made to seem just a natural continuation of a lifetime of moral dilemma.
The issue of both biblical consistency and relative lack thereof is actually fascinating. Card takes some pretty well-justified creative liberties to fill in the quite substantial gaps the scriptures leave in the life-story of Rebekah, Isaac, and their various family, that form a rich source of surprising complexity in the family and character dynamics. Occasionally this comes in the form of fun feminist and otherwise irreverent retorts to the male-dominated Bible, but more often it takes shape as a much more convoluted background to explain the biblically depicted idiosyncrasies in this holy family. And I really mean convoluted; Card can rival "Memento" for the cleverness with which he sets up personal relationships and chains of consequences that obliquely dovetail in ways you suddenly realize were inevitable. Also clever is the consistency with which he addresses the prevalent theme of faith in a miraculous God from the point of view of the main characters. Anyone, regardless of personal beliefs, could read and enjoy the novel and accept that the characters' perception of divine action makes just as much sense as any character seeing the world through the lens of his own preconceptions. At the same time, Card paints a fair depiction of earnest believers and their honest morality and faith, that forms a more compelling and understandable explanation of Judeo-Christian faith than most literature explicitly intended for that purpose. Nevertheless, though Rebekah's God comforts, he does so sparingly. In "Rebekah" as often in life, there are no easy answers, no enemies without endearing qualities and family connections, and no loved ones without mutually inconsistent priorities and goals that are apparently insurmountable more often than not. For being based on a story so familiar, this novel is far above most from-scratch novels in suspending the reader's wonder in how things will turn out next.