I first found out about By Light of Hidden Candles by Daniella Levy when the author asked people to vote on cover candidates for this book on the Goodreads group Jewish Historical Fiction. I voted for the cover that Levy decided to use. So I recognized it when I saw it on Net Galley which is my source for this ARC. By Light of Hidden Candles won't be published until October 2017.
The historical aspect of this novel deals with 15th century Spain. Long before I began blogging, I had read quite a bit about Jews during this period. The only time I've approached the subject on this blog was when I reviewed The Mapmaker's Daughter by Laurel Corona here. Corona's book was set apart by her highly accomplished female protagonist.
What makes By Light of Hidden Candles different is that it's a dual period novel. We pretty much know where the 15th century Jewish characters will end up because Alma, their 21st century descendant, already knew that information. This necessarily lessens the suspense in the historical story line. So the central drama of the narrative involves the contemporary characters, what they will discover about their ancestors, how they will discover it and the impact that learning about their ancestors will have on them.
I was most interested in the Spanish Catholic contemporary protagonist, Manuel Aguilar, who we first encounter unexpectedly walking into a Judaica store in New York. Readers may think they know why he entered that store, but this is a complex character whose motivations aren't completely clear even to himself. Readers come to know Manuel through the process of his own grappling with his faith, values and identity.
I very much enjoyed the fact that Alma and Manuel found history as compelling and meaningful as I do. They are excited by finding documents that are centuries old. Any readers who don't think that history has any real relevance will be amazed by the power of research to change the lives of Alma and Manuel. As someone who absolutely loves archives, I was delighted by a novel where the entire plot turns on a mention of an ancestor in archival records.
Although the contemporary story has a less obvious ending than the historical plot, there is an element of predictability for the contemporary characters. The strong sense of destiny at work plus other factors that are spoilers made me realize how the contemporary plotline would resolve very early in my reading. So very little was surprising in By Light of Hidden Candles, yet I was still moved by the characters and their relationships.
I recommend this book to people who want to read about family history and genealogy that makes a difference in the way people see themselves.