Apart from a few fantastic touches, the plot is grounded in real-world issues, both historic and contemporary, and hinges on how Jews were forced to conceal their faith to survive. In Portugal in 1544, José Mendez, raised as a devout Catholic by his wealthy aunt, Dona Antonia, is told about his true heritage as a Sephardic Jew after experiencing a tragic shock. Later circumstances force his family, including his beautiful cousin Reyna, to flee Lisbon for the enlightened city of Istanbul, whose sultan, Suleiman, lets his Jewish subjects live and worship in peace. However, for saving not only their lives but those of his future progeny, José owes Suleiman a great obligation, one which affects the life of his cherished daughter, Tamar.
Four centuries later, in 2002, it’s up to descendants of both families to set things right, although neither is aware that the debt exists. The protagonists here are Selim Osman, the “sole living descendant of the last Ottoman sultan” (an invented scenario) and Hannah Herzikova, daughter of a man rescued from the Holocaust as a baby by a French Christian family. The descriptions of Istanbul, richly ornamented and cosmopolitan in its past and present, are worth savoring, and to the author’s credit, the setting isn’t idealized; it’s not an idyllic paradise in either era.
However, the novel’s premise and fixed structure poses problems for character development. Some of their stories, like that of David Herzikova, Hannah’s father, are cut off abruptly, and the romantic connections between others aren’t fully explored. The story is emotionally gripping regardless, and all ends on a satisfying note. Anyone who enjoyed Naomi Ragen’s The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, about the brave historical figure on whom Dona Antonia is based, will want to dive in, too.
The Debt of Tamar was published in September by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press ($25.99/hb/304pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.