...the biggest, most ambitious book of [Hoffman’s] career … Once Yael and her father make it to Masada, the novel kicks into a higher gear...There’s already a legend associated with Masada, which is passed around by the refugees, of a man who killed his family and then himself, rather than submit to the king. This is, of course, about to be relived on a more horrifying scale … Hoffman is working with harrowing stuff, and The Dovekeepers only gains in power as the Roman soldiers move closer to their destination.
...a book that pays beautiful homage to the people of Masada, and particularly the women … By the book's end, all four characters are richly rounded, and Yael is as beloved as the others. In retrospect, her habit of cutting lines into her flesh to mark the grueling days in the desert — and probably her other actions there — also reminded her that she was alive … The Dovekeepers is a stunningly crafted work about a tragic and heroic time. It also showcases Hoffman's immense gift for telling stories about women, magic and complex relationships.
Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers is a splendid entertainment, a harrowing, thrilling, feminist historical novel fueled to fever pitch by a rich imagination … Her mastery of historical detail is impressive, evoking the time and place, enriching her characters, creating a story that engages emotions as well as intellect. Her writing is elegant and passionate, occasionally rising to an Old Testament cadence distractingly reminiscent of those biblical movie extravaganzas of the 1950s. The world she describes is one of myths, symbols, portents, omens, dreams, spells, curses, strange ancient customs, and practices. The women’s stories intertwine and unfold against a landscape soaked in blood, not only the blood of violence but menstrual blood and the blood of childbirth.
...a long novel full of middling descriptions, hackneyed characters and histrionic plot twists … Different characters supposedly narrate the novel’s various sections, yet all these voices consistently wallow in the same sort of hyperbole and forced metaphor … The abundance of overstatement and clumsy description minimizes the impact of actual dramatic events. When the women take lovers, steal babies, cast spells, their actions feel contrived. Although, toward the end of the novel, one of the characters explains the uniformity of expression by declaring that she is passing on the stories of those who did not survive, this seems equally unconvincing.
The Dovekeepers is an enormously ambitious, multi-part story, richly decorated with the details of life 2,000 years ago. What’s more, as Anita Diamant showed so popularly with The Red Tent, the world of ancient Judaism provides fertile ground for exploring the challenges of women’s lives, and, fortunately, this time Hoffman treats her favorite issues without throwing up much of the fairy dust that too often clogs her work…The result is a high-minded feminist story of unassailable seriousness … Many of the incidents these women relate — family conflicts, cruel assaults, romantic trysts, difficult births, jealous conflicts, magical incantations — are dramatic and engaging, but their sheer number eventually feels relentless, a tiresome delay of the bloodbath we know is coming.
In AD70, Hoffman's characteristic elision of the magical and the quotidian finds its spiritual home. This is a world in which trust in the immutability of one's destiny is matched by the desperate belief that the right magic can change the future. The dovekeepers' lives are punctuated by prayers, curses and omens. Their decisions are directed by prophecies and by dreams, their faith sustained by miracles. That we know from Josephus how the story must end only adds to the sense, so strongly shared by the women themselves, that their fates are already decided … The novel is much too long and, for most of its 500 pages, its four protagonists suffer relentlessly. Bereaved, persecuted, despised, they live in fear of the brutality of men and the pitiless heat of the desert. The archaic prose style doesn't help.
It’s not easy to make characters living in 70 C.E., fighting the Romans on Masada, breathe on the page, but Alice Hoffman’s masterpiece succeeds. Two women and five children survived the massacre, according to first-century Jewish historian Josephus. Hoffman builds upon his ancient account, using it as a starting point to tell the stories of four women whose divergent paths brought them to Masada … Hoffman is painstakingly thorough, crafting detailed accounts of each woman’s life and infusing them with a timeless sensibility that resonates with a modern audience.
These feisty heroines recount not just their own vivid histories but witness the encircling of the rock by the Romans and the inexorable raising of a siege mound that signals their coming destruction. They are also the means through which Hoffman treats her real themes: love, faith, friendship, the power of silence, the unchanging concerns of women. These are proper, ambitious subjects and she approaches them uncompromisingly and with an admirable fixity of purpose. However, she also does so in a style that is meant to summon up both the cadences and the mindset of 2,000 years ago. She adopts a locution (all four of the protagonists sound the same) designed to underscore the profundity of her content but which turns everything portentous.
The Dovekeepers has it all –– convincing characters, compelling plot, breathtaking setting, plus age-old themes swirling in a maelstrom of religion, sex, and war. It helps that novelist Alice Hoffman has great historical material to work with … To these materials Hoffman has applied her formidable sympathetic imagination to recreate the drama between the years 70CE and 73CE, recounted by four strong women … The story line examines how women –– ancient and modern –– manage to live with, and love, men engaged in religion-inspired asymmetrical warfare. Such women do the messy work of daily life beside their men who, gripped by ideological –– even fanatical –– ardor, pursue apocalyptic ends. Hoffman moves effortlessly among action, setting, and details of daily life in ancient Judea, but always returns to religious reverie, the burdens of womanhood, and the horror of war. Thus The Dovekeepers is deeply spiritual and unabashedly feminist.
Myths, omens, magic and faith are the frames through which the narrators make sense of their experience; every detail carries symbolic weight in this world, weight that ultimately drags like an anchor against their lives. The weight dragged against this reader, too. Hoffman creates a vividly detailed world that I found mesmerizing – for the first couple hundred pages. I tasted the salt, felt the heat of the desert, yearned for water, ached against injustice and cruelty, pondered the meaning of magic and omens. But ultimately the four narrators seemed less like real women than the four queens of a deck of cards, archetypes rather than characters, the details too repetitive and portentous.
The women in The Dovekeepers are physically and spiritually strong, they have elemental female desires when it comes to love, sex, and children, and many of them possess magical powers: In other words, they’re Alice Hoffman Women … The four embody aspects of not only femininity and feminism but also spiritual expression, Jewish tradition, and — in the biggest picture — the world’s never-ending cycle of peace and war and peace, among both nations and families.
Hoffman tells all four stories in the first person – a risky choice in a historical novel, for reasons this one makes painfully clear. Because the characters surrounding this quartet rarely get to speak for themselves – The Dovekeepers doesn't have much dialogue – they are reduced to chess pieces, moved by Hoffman at will to satisfy the needs of a clumsily handled plot … Stripped of its overworked plot and overwrought prose, The Dovekeepers could have been a much better book.
This is a feminist tale, a story of strong, intelligent women wedded to destiny by love and sacrifice … Hoffman's research renders the ancient world real as the group treks into Judea's desert, where they encounter Essenes, search for sustenance and burn under the sun … An enthralling tale rendered with consummate literary skill.
Almost too dense to bear, Hoffman's 23rd novel is brimming with doom … Hoffman can tell a tale and knows about creating compassionate characters, but the leaden archaic prose style she uses tells more than it shows. Massive descriptive paragraphs slow the action, until, by the end, the reader is simply worn out.