As eastern Europe is fractured during World War II, the Satmar Rebbe of Transylvania makes a miraculous escape to America and begins building a new community in the Williambsurg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York; meanwhile, those of his Transylvanian followers who survive the war are dispersed throughout Europe. Zalman Stern, his wife Hannah, and their growing family end up in Paris, where they are eventually joined by two young orphans. Josef was the only survivor of the brutal murder of his family, rescued and raised as her son by their Christian maid; several years later, Josef rescues Mila after her parents are killed chasing after a train--the very train on which the Satmar Rebbe is leaving. When both children end up in the care of the Sterns, Mila remains with them to be raised as a sister to their eldest daughter, Atara, while Josef is dispatched to Williamsburg to study with the Rebbe himself. Josef and Mila will be reunited a few years later when their marriage is arranged. The Sterns' daughter Atara will find herself on a different path; her curiosity about the secular world surrounding her family in Paris raises questions she is emphatically discouraged from pursuing--but she can't ignore them. While Mila and Josef become more deeply entrenched in the Satmar way of life, Atara will become estranged from it...and ultimately from her family.
The title of I Am Forbidden can be interpreted several ways within the context of the novel. Women in the Satmar sect are forbidden from furthering their educations or working; they have no role outside the family. Their most important job is producing children, and one of their greatest responsibilities related to that job is the preservation of "family purity"--the rules that govern sexual relations between husbands and wives. Sex is for procreation only, and a wife must carefully track her cycles. There are several days each month when her husband is forbidden to touch her; at the end of that time, she partakes in a ritual bath and returns home to give her husband a sign that he is now "permitted" to be with her. This "permitted" time should coincide with her most fertile days, and if all goes well, she won't have "unclean" days again for months; however, pregnancy will make her "forbidden" again. A wife who does not produce children has failed at her job, and after ten years, her husband may divorce her.
It can be hard for a modern woman to understand how any woman in this day and age could accept living like this...which is why it's key to understand that living like this is a deliberate rejection of anything "modern," and can only be perpetuated within a community that chooses to close itself off from the world. Exposure to unsanctioned ideas from the outside can raise questions; questioning can undermine an individual's belief, and individual questioners may ultimately break down a community of believers. Questioning is why Atara Stern had to leave her family behind.
Markovits has Atara leave the story behind along with her family, as the remainder of the novel focuses on Mila. Her story is probably more interesing from the outside because her life is so unfamiliar, but at the same time, the narrowness of Mila's life makes her story more challenging to tell. While Markovits rises to that challenge for the most part, when she tries to take Mila out of her life's confines, the novel takes a turn that I thought was unfortunately soap-operatic. Although I continued to be pulled along by the story, my appreciation for it diminshed a bit over the last third of the book.
Anouk Markovits' writing is lovely, and she has attempted some ambitious storytelling in I Am Forbidden. The novel spans decades and explores a way of life that seems to exist alongside our own time rather than of it. It touches on matters historical, political, and religious while focusing on one family's story. I don't think all of it worked, but I appreciate it when an author reaches the way this one does; and while I didn't find the novel entirely satisfying, I did find it consistently engaging, interesting, and emotionally resonant.