A Guide for the Perplexed
W. W. Norton
Josie Ashkenazi was a nerd, which meant her childhood was at times miserable; friendless and taunted by other kids, she had memories she wanted to suppress. As an adult, however, Josie founded a successful software company, was the subject of a nationally televised documentary, married an equally brilliant man, and had a lovely daughter—which only fueled her older sister’s jealousy. Her crown achievement is her software program Genizah, which sorts and tracks information on the user, and to some degree predicts the user’s future. The software stores all memories and information—it does not discriminate.
Josie’s fame brought her to the attention of a museum in Alexandria that had acquired mountains of artifacts and documents that needed sorting. Her Genizah software seems to be the solution. At the prompting of her sister, Josie travels to post-revolutionary Egypt to begin cataloging the ancient materials. On her last day, Josie is kidnapped, forced into solitary confinement, and tortured. Her captors stage her death and post the video of her hanging. All at home assume she has been murdered; her sister Judith seizes this opening and works her way into Josie’s grieving family.
Two other threads weave throughout Josie’s story. One takes place a century earlier as we follow a British professor on the trail of ancient Jewish manuscripts haphazardly stored in a synagogue in Fustat, Egypt. The other goes back in history even further to Maimonides. The latter’s tract, A Guide for the Perplexed, is one that the British professor and Josie have studied and pondered.
Although centuries separate the three characters, common issues persist. What is memory–and who should control or choose what is remembered? What is free will–and does it actually exist if there is an all-knowing god? Is it possible to predict the future? Sibling rivalry and envy loom large in each individual case, with the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers as metaphor. This novel is so satisfying on so many levels, it’s hard to capture everything in a short review! I found myself anxiously waiting for Josie’s fate to be decided (and the ending is quite a surprise) but the philosophical questions that were posed remained with me long after I finished reading A Guide for the Perplexed. This is certainly a book to be read many times.
~ Mary Fran