BOOK CLUB – The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Welcome to BOOK CLUB, which I run with co-conspirator Nicole from Linus’s Blanket. Today we will be chatting about The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, from Harper Books. For those of you reading this post, please remember that this discussion may contain spoilers.

Here is the synopsis of the book I wrote for my review:

A golem and a jinni walk into New York City at the turn of the century. Okay, well, the Jinni doesn’t actually walk, he arrives in a copper flask that has held oil for longer than anyone can remember. The Golem, though, she walks. She walks right off the ship that carried her from Europe and right along the bottom of the harbor. Oh, and also this isn’t a joke, but Helene Wecker’s lovely and magical story about late 19th century immigration, identity, and just a little magic.

I may be updating this post with new questions and ideas over the course of the day.

Here we go…

  • First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
  • Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
  • What did you think about the relationships between Chava and Rabbi Meyer/Ahmad and Arbeely?
  • Why do you think Wecker chose to write about mystical creatures immigrating to the United States (if not exactly willingly) at the turn of the century? Do you think she achieved her goal?
  • Any other questions? Anything else you want to discuss?

Copies of The Golem and the Jinni were provided by Harper Books in order to facilitate this discussion.

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17 comments to BOOK CLUB – The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

  • I am very, very fond of this book, and will probably even re-read it in the future. This is probably also a book that I would have picked up on my own because…THAT COVER. The cover of this book is just gorgeous, and I love that the edges of the pages are navy blue. “Never judge a book by its cover,” but I do it all the time, and I had this one partially judged as soon as it came in the mail. Had I seen this on a shelf in the bookstore or in the library, I would have picked it up right away. Plus, I love the Jewish/Arab mythology set at the beginning of the 20th century in NYC. That’s such a great idea.

    Both relationships are wonderful (Chava/Rabbi, Jinni/Arbeely), but Chava’s relationship with the rabbi was the most wonderful and heartbreaking. Of course, the two relationships are vastly different because the Golem and the Jinni are vastly different beings, not only in their make-up but also in their attitudes. The relationship between the Jinni and Arbeely was bound to fail because the Jinni is so self-centered.

    As to why Helene Wecker wrote this book, I can take a guess. The “immigrant comes to NYC and is new and doesn’t have anything, etc” story has been told many, many times. Using the Golem and the Jinni as the newest immigrants to NYC at the beginning of the 20th century puts a whole new twist on that story, and also adds new elements to it, I think. Not only are the Golem and the Jinni new to America and NYC, they are new to THE WORLD. Both are newborns, in a sense–the Golem is literally a newborn in an adult’s body, and the Jinni has been in his copper flask for a thousand years. He may as well be a newborn himself. They also don’t fit in ANYWHERE else. They don’t have a neighborhood of Golems and Jinnis to go to for support. They are totally on their own until meeting their respective surrogate parents, if you will. And I think Wecker set the story at the beginning of the 20th century because not only were the immigrant neighborhoods clearly defined at that point (meaning the Golem could find her Jewish neighborhood and the Jinni could find his Syrian neighborhood), but also because immigrants in the early 20th century still told stories about these “mythical” beings (and still believed them in a sense). Would the Golem and the Jinni have been recognized for what they were in 2013? Would ANYONE have believed them to be what they were? Probably not. But in the early 20th century, the stories were maybe JUST starting to be misbelieved by the newer generations (if at all). That made it easier for the story to unfold through the beliefs of the people who found out what the Golem and the Jinni were.

    Oh boy, I’ve typed a lot. And maybe rambled a little. I truly enjoyed this book (not only for the mythology, but also for the backdrop of NYC in 1899/1900). Thank you so much for choosing it for BOOK CLUB!

    • I also loved the relationship between the Golem and the Rabbi. It was such a touching, caring, yet precarious relationship, but full of unconditional love. It was a great role model for the Golem for future relationships with people, since she didn’t have much of a past.

      I also think a lot about whether things would be the same now as back then. Kind of like with The Liars’ Gospel. If someone said he was the Messiah now, would anyone believe him (or her!)? Would we be so unbelieving that if there was something really occurring, like the Messiah, a Jinni, a Golem, a unicorn, would we just look at the situation in disbelief? I think that we would in many situations.

  • First of all, the book is gorgeous! I LOVE the cover and am obsessed with the pages edged in blue. I mean, come on! Who does that now? It’s amazing.

    At almost 500 pages, it’s a book I would have probably skipped unless told I had to read it by a few individuals. I’m just not normally a fan of super long books because I think it can usually be said with less words.

    I think that within the book there are a lot of interesting concepts hidden below the surface.

    Do we have free will? Chava didn’t with a master, but then did she end up having free will without a master?

    Can “enslaved” people ever be free? The Jinni’s enslaved and forced to America but he’s kind of free now even when still in bondage. Chava has no master but and was forced to America, and is she actually free now?

    Life is worth living. Chava tried to kill herself but the Jinni didn’t let her. The Jinni tried to kill himself but Chava wouldn’t let him. Irving wanted Anna to get rid of the baby but she kept him even though she knew it would be really difficult.

    And it’s something I could relate to a little bit because it seems like Chava and the Jinni will end up being together, in a mixed marriage in more ways than one. My husband and I have different religions, and Chava and the Jinni will have issues based on religious background, culture, etc.

    I really enjoyed this book. What did you guys think?

    • The length is what originally put me off, too. I wanted to read it based on the premise, then it was so looong, so I chose it for BOOK CLUB so I would actually get to it. The day after I finished I actually found myself wishing that it was longer so I could still be reading it.

  • Farin

    I loved this book so much! I feel like I’d heard about it in passing and it was kind of on my radar, but I’m not sure I would have read it if it hadn’t been for book club, which would have been a pity because I would have missed out on something really special.

    Like Heather and Rebecca, I had a visceral reaction when I opened the envelope and saw the book for the first time. It is absolutely gorgeous and made me want to crack it open right away, which I pretty much did. Not only that, but it made my seat mates on the train stop and stare and ask me what I was reading. Huge props to the design team at HarperBooks.

    I think what I liked most about this book was watching Chava and Ahmad navigate the world of humans and also realize that while they can’t completely hide their natures (as Chava tried to do when she married Michael), they can’t let their natures run free either (as Ahmad did with his impulsive decisions). Helene Wecker definitely succeeded in making these fantastic beings relatable.

    I also really enjoyed watching all the relationships evolve. Again, I agree with Heather that the relationship with Chava and Rabbi Meyer was a little more grounded and reciprocal and more tragic, but I feel like Arbeely helped Ahmad realize that he did enjoy some human company and that he couldn’t be quite so self-centered if he wanted to maintain that relationship. I think my favorite relationship of all was the one between Chava and Ahmad. I loved watching the two of them find solace in their separateness and how their respective traits complete what the other is missing. I wanted to know what happened to them after the book was over!

    And I couldn’t think of a better backdrop than New York in the turn of the 20th century. I agree that people were closer to the old country back then and were, therefore, more willing to believe, but I think it also worked for Chava and Ahmad’s benefit because immigrants kept entering the country every day and the streets were full of people taking in a new place, much like the two of them were, so it was a lot easier for them to blend in successfully.

    I loved this book to pieces and can definitely see myself re-reading. I’m so thankful for book club!

    • I had both an arc and a finished copy and I definitely chose to read my arc so my finished copy could stay all pretty. It is definitely easier to blend in when nobody else fits in, either!

  • Karen Marino

    I loved this book and it now is on my list of favorites. I can see myself returning to it over and over again and finding new ideas and seeing things in a differnt way at various stages of my own life. I hope that the author won’t be offended but I found myself thinking of The Veveteen Rabbit. One of the philosphical questions that uder lie this ook that fascninated me was what makes us human? I loved the discussion between the Ahmed and Chava in the park about God. Was it meant to mimic some of the ideas of Michael and his Uncle the Rabbi? What a very human concept -God and his purpose in life. Althought this book doesn’t have the simple answers of The Veveteen Rabbit, it’s answers were for me more rich and meaningful.

    • Can you say more about what about the book reminded you of The Velveteen Rabbit? I’m sure Wecker wouldn’t be offended at being compared to such an enduring classic!

      • Karen Marino

        Jen, the theme of becoming human was the comparision I was making. Both authors take their “creatures” through a number of exeriences that lead them to become human. I know that Wecker’s Golem and Jinni don’t turn into Humans physically but they become human through the process of living life among people not losing their nature but becoming more than… if that makes sense. What’s so pleasurable about Wecker’s book it’s a more complex story and as an adult I can relate to the trials and tribulations as well as the triumphs that Chava and Ahmed go through as they become more like the humans they live among but not losing the best of themselves. I loved the ending of the book when Chava is thinking about taking the relationship further with Ahmed and wondering how it would work. Oh if only we humans were as willing to accept the other in creating relationships. Beautiful ending.

  • YAY. I’m so glad everyone loved the book as much as I did. I don’t even know what to say about it, it is just so wonderful. It was totally languishing on my shelf before we decided to do it for BOOK CLUB, thank goodness we did!

  • Jaime

    I absolutely loved this book, it exceeded my expectations. I had been interested in reading it once I read a description, I enjoy historical fiction and the premise is original. I wasn’t sure where it was going at first as the narrative bounced around to snippets of the stories of various characters, both past and in the story present, rather than a tighter focus on the titular characters that I was expecting. However, having the story related in this way helped emphasize the sense of the community central to the story’s setting and built my interest in how the elements would come together, which they did in a satisfying way. Nothing’s better than having high hopes for a book and having it more than deliver.

    I liked both the relationships between Chava/Rabbi Meyer and Ahmad/Arbeely, but as Heather and Farin said, it was the relationship between Rabbi Meyer and the Golem that I really connected with.

    As far as the choice to make mystical creatures the central characters of this story, I feel this adds an extra dimension of alienation to the “fish out of water” story. Not only must both Chava and Ahmad make the transition all immigrants living in Manhattan in this time period must make, they must also adjust to blending in with humans in general. To most people, the community is a source of support in a new place, but to Chava and Ahmad it can also be source of stress as certain social norms must be followed to be accepted (not that Ahmad cared so much about that). It also allows for the two characters from separate communities to have something uniquely in common that connects them and can support each other.

    I also agree with everyone who said that this book is worth reading again and again. I feel more depths will be discovered on each read through.

  • Marie

    What a beautiful book! I literally just finished it and adored the entire thing. The ending made me wonder if maybe there will be a sequel.
    I admire the author for choosing such a challenging and unique storyline. At first, the idea sounded bizarre to me, but Wecker manifested the characters and plot with such grace and attention to detail that it came together naturally. My favorite book is one that makes me forget that I’m actually reading. I’m excited to see what her future novels will involve!

  • •First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
    I thought this book was a great idea and I loved how the concept was fresh and unique!

    •Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club? I think I would of read this book in my free time (not for book club) if I was able to get a copy (I blog so most of my books I receive are free, I do buy books but mostly second hand and at book sales etc)

    •What did you think about the relationships between Chava and Rabbi Meyer/Ahmad and Arbeely?
    I liked the relationships and thought they were all very interesting.

    •Why do you think Wecker chose to write about mystical creatures immigrating to the United States (if not exactly willingly) at the turn of the century? Do you think she achieved her goal?
    because she was being different and creative and also because all paranormal creatures/folk lore did immigrate to America because we are all desended from immigrants and I do not know of any paranormal creatures who were created in American culture (but I could be wrong) and yes I do think she acheived her goal.

    •Any other questions? Anything else you want to discuss?
    Well frist I want to thank the author for using paranormal being who arent predominately seen in literature right now (I mean for the most part I like Vampires but Im just getting tired of how they are being portrayed right now).
    I think this book could be a movie (maybe) who would be its cast?
    What is the author working on next?
    What inspired her to write this?

  • Sorry I’m a day late! I actually have to admit that I have yet to get through the entirety of this book. I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far (~100 pages), but at the same time it hasn’t really grabbed me in a way that makes me want to sit and read it for hours on end. I was SO excited for a female golem, and fell in love with djinn last year when I read Alif the Unseen, and was really happy to see Ahmed followed much of that same non-human mentality. I love stories of non-human characters interacting in a human world, and really did want to read this book regardless of the book club. I still do, I just think I may need to set it aside for a bit and come back to it when I’m in a more fitting mood.

    I’m of two minds about the story I’ve read thus far–on the one hand I’m just waiting for the golem and the jinni to be in the same place at the same time already, but on the other hand I’m really enjoying all of the tangents and back stories of all of the people they encounter. These back stories make the pace slow, but I think this is one of those books that’s meant to be taken in slowly. I love that Wecker chose to write about immigration through the eyes of creatures that barely understand humans in general, let alone life in New York City at the turn of the century.

    • Not to worry!

      I think you’re right at the point where the book is about to take off. I agree it was a little slow before the Golem and the Jinni actually met, but then…

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