As Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler tells us, characters in great fiction must truly yearn for something. Well, I’d be hard pressed to name a novel in which the characters yearned more earnestly and more movingly than the dreamers in The Language of Paradise do. Sophia wants beauty, romantic love, and freedom, while growing up in the austere New England household of a 19th century minister. Gideon, the young theology student who marries her, longs for a mystic paradise. He wants to make his way back to the splendors of Eden by piercing the mysteries of the bible whose ancient words “carry the breath of creation.” When worldly and manipulative Leander enters the scene, suddenly everything seems possible. “I am the spark!” Leander says, and the three of them retire to an isolated home – the men hoping to create utopia through a bizarre social experiment, Sophia hoping that her beloved young husband hasn’t lost his mind.
What happens next is too intriguing for me to give it away by saying more about the plot; what I will say is that this is a profoundly beautiful and surprising book. Passion becomes all the more thrilling in its conscious restraint, while the glory of this world – and the next – glimmers in the everyday surroundings. Herb gardens, ornately carved furniture, a Hebrew letter drawn in black ink on white paper, a young girl twirling in the meadow all make the reader and the young couple long for more while also reminding us that the three utopians are not alone in seeking out something better. The temptation in writing a book of this sort would be to put the seekers of Eden in a dreary world filled with rigid people who have no dreams of their own. Instead, Moss has created a complex and very real society, pulsing with both ambition and moments of grace, as well as with dreams both humble and grand.
We feel the joys and the limitations of the ordinary world, while sympathizing with Gideon who would “plunge deep enough to glimpse a sunken city; the crystal walls of the New Jerusalem.” And we see a marriage rocked by the need to come to terms with the ideals of first love while accommodating the real and impure demands of living with an actual flesh and blood partner. The result is a book that takes us away into a dream state while leaving us with a hard look at what it takes to make our way through the here and now.
The author has given an interview discussing The Language of Paradise and her own feelings about exile and utopia. Read it here: