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A Biblical Woman's Tale That Won Readers' Hearts

April 24, 2000|EMILY DWASS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the novel "The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant was published in 1997, it was greeted with the book industry's ultimate kiss of death: silence.

As in no major reviews, no national advertising, no Oprah, no big signs in bookstore windows and nobody showing up at readings. The novel, based on the biblical story of Dinah, seemed destined to languish on dusty bargain-book tables.

Now, three years later, "The Red Tent" (Picador USA) is getting noticed big time. The paperback edition is in its ninth printing, with 235,000 copies sold, and has been on the Los Angeles Times paperback bestseller list for the last month. It has been translated into 10 languages. Movie producers want to do lunch. More and more book clubs are spreading the word about the novel.

"The Red Tent's" metamorphosis from an unknown to an unlikely star has made it an example of that extremely rare publishing phenomenon: word-of-mouth success.

"It was just one person telling another, telling another," says Michael Hewson, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Calabasas.

By giving a voice to Dinah, one of the silent female characters in Genesis, the novel has struck a chord with women who may have felt left out of biblical history. It celebrates mothers and daughters and the mysteries of the life cycle. The red tent of the title is a sanctuary, where women stay during menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth.

No one is more surprised by the book's still-growing popularity than Diamant, 48, who lives in suburban Boston. After the hardcover version appeared, she did a tour and ended up in a bookstore in the Valley for a reading.

"Who was there?" Diamant recalls. "Three people. My best friend from junior high, her mother and me."

Diamant was recently the featured speaker at a Women's Department fund-raiser at the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance in West Hills. This time, there was a crowd of nearly 300. In other cities, her readings have attracted audiences of up to 900 people.

Diamant credits reading groups with making her novel the big seller that it is. Some of the nationwide buzz was generated by Mickey Pearlman of New Jersey, known as the "book club guru." A regular speaker at reading groups and author of "What to Read: The Essential Guide for Reading Group Members and Other Book Lovers" (Harper Collins), Pearlman frequently praises "The Red Tent" during her in-person and online talks.

"I really thought that this book was important and the perfect book for book clubs," she says. "It raises a lot of pivotal issues for women."

Another key player in the novel's rebirth was Diane Higgins, senior editor at Picador USA, who came on board after the original editor left the publishing house. Higgins felt the book deserved a second chance. With that in mind, she sent out hundreds of copies to rabbis, Protestant ministers and nuns and priests. As clergy praised the book from the pulpit, church and synagogue book clubs began to read it. At the same time, Diamant set out on an exhaustive tour, speaking at book fairs, fund-raisers, synagogues, churches and universities. It paid off.

"It's going wild," Higgins says. "The sales figures increase every week." In her 15 years in the publishing business, she says, she has never seen a novel gain so much momentum from word-of-mouth recommendations.

Initially, bookstores were caught off guard by the belated demand for "The Red Tent."

Barnes & Noble department manager Hewson read the book in December at the suggestion of a favorite customer. He liked it so much the store made it the employee pick for January. That's when Hewson noticed something strange.

"We'd have 10 copies on the shelf, and three days later you'd go to get it and there would not be one. Normally, when there are 10 copies of a book on the shelf, you don't even need to look it up on the computer. Nothing sells that fast . . . we had to keep upping our quantity that we kept in stock," he says.

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Not bad for a first-time novelist. Diamant was a writer of nonfiction works for more than 20 years before she decided to tackle a novel. She had just turned 40 and was looking for a new challenge. She knew she wanted to write fiction, but there was one problem, she says: "I did not have my own novel burning a hole in my pocket."

Having previously written on contemporary Jewish issues, she turned to the Bible for ideas and found what she was looking for in Genesis 34, one of the most problematic of biblical texts. It tells the brief and traumatic story of Dinah, the only daughter of Leah and Jacob.

"Dinah is the left-out one, the missing sister," says Miriyam Glazer, professor and head of the literature department at the University of Judaism. "Jacob had 12 sons, but he also had this daughter. . . . Much of Jewish tradition has been filling in the missing details. Women are drawn to fill in the missing details of Dinah's story."

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