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Diamant Finds a Harbor

The best-selling author says her latest book is not "The Red Tent" revisited.

by Naomi Pfefferman

November 29, 2001 | 7:00 pm

While writing "Good Harbor," about the midlife friendship between two Jewish women, Anita Diamant says she suffered a bout of "second-novelitis."

Her 1997 debut novel, "The Red Tent" -- a sexy spin on the biblical story of Dinah -- had been a runaway best seller that's still on the New York Times list. Julia Roberts told Oprah magazine that "Tent" was one of her favorite books. The book has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the United States alone, and publishers have bought the rights in 18 countries.

"So there was this kind of expectation," says the 50-year-old writer, from her Boston home. "People would ask if I was going to do [the biblical] Miriam or Sarah next, and I'd have to say, 'No. That's not what's in me next.' They'd tell me the book moved them to pick up the Bible for the first time in decades, and I'd think, 'How can I do that again?'"

Support from friends enabled Diamant to hunker down and finish "Good Harbor," which is set in present-day Gloucester, Mass., and focuses on the healing bond of female friendship. Kathleen McCormack Levine, 59, is a convert to Judaism battling both breast cancer and memories of a long-dead son. Joyce Tabachnik, 42, is a journalist-turned-romance writer struggling with her own "second-novelitis" and how to remove a Madonna from her property "without pissing off the ... block or starting a pogrom."

The two lonely women connect at a synagogue oneg Shabbat and begin meeting for long walks and talks on picturesque Good Harbor beach.

While best-sellers like Helen Fielding's "Bridget Jones's Diary" and Lucinda Rosenfeld's "What She Saw" have spurred other amusing books about distressed single young women, "Harbor" -- which made the extended New York Times list -- proves married, middle-aged heroines can sell books, too.

Diamant offers an explanation when she says "My work honors women's relationships in ways the larger culture tends to ignore."

Her books also delve deeply into the nuances of Jewish life, which isn't surprising, given her history. Though she grew up in a largely nonobservant Denver home, her interest in Judaism sparked after she began attending conversion classes with her non-Jewish husband-to-be around 1984. When she asked a rabbi to recommend a Jewish wedding book, he suggested that the free-lance journalist should write one herself. "Most of the wedding books at the time focused on etiquette, not options about Jewish practice," says Diamant, who wrote "The New Jewish Wedding" to correct the problem.

Several Jewish how-to books later, the author, like the fictional Joyce, suffered a midlife-career crisis. "I turned 40, and I wanted to try something different," says Diamant, who turned to Dinah because "the story had sex, violence and intrigue, which is great material for a novel."

While the biblical character is raped by a Canaanite prince, Diamant re-imagined the tale as a love story -- eliciting ire from Jews who accused her of heresy or justifying a rape. In response, the author cites the prince's oddly tender behavior toward Dinah. "I'm not the first person to wonder if there was a rape," she insists. "The story is known as one of the troubling texts in Judaism. Besides, my book was fiction, not Midrash, so I was justified in doing whatever I wanted."

Another battle ensued when "Tent's" publisher planned to pulp the book after it achieved only modest sales in 1997. Undaunted, Diamant feverishly worked the book group circuit and convinced St. Martin's Press to send copies to some 1,000 rabbis around the country. A mailing to female ministers followed, and by 1999, "Tent" had become a rare word-of-mouth best seller.

The proceeds enabled Diamant to purchase a vacation home near her favorite Gloucester area beach on Cape Ann -- not unlike what her fictional Joyce had done. It was on Cape Ann that daily oceanfront walks and talks with friends had helped the author recover from "second-novelitis" and inspired the story that would become "Good Harbor."

Diamant says the breast cancer subplot came about when "'way too many people I knew developed the disease. It seemed like there was constantly another diagnosis in my life or on the periphery."

The author, who has never had breast cancer, researched the disease by interviewing doctors and visiting a radiation treatment center.

Today, she is at work on a third novel, which may not have any Jewish characters. But it will definitely revisit one of her favorite themes: female bonding. "Friendship is such a powerful force in women's lives," she says. "I want to celebrate that."

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