Grace A. Johnson
Review: The Prince and the Prodigal by Jill Eileen Smith
#1 This is a long review, so pull up a chair and grab a bowl of popcorn. You’ll be here awhile. #2 When I read a review, I want substantial information. So I will not skimp on the details. Which may mean some spoilers, so watch out.
Synopsis: Joseph, the favored son of Jacob, has long been despised by his ten older brothers. But when his father bestows upon him a coat of many colors and the Lord begins to give him dreams of authority over his family, their hatred grows until it spills over. Sold into slavery in Egypt, Joseph embarks upon a years-long journey from lowest of slaves to highest of kings...while his brother Judah separates from his family to wrestle with his guilt.
Biblical fiction—particularly retellings and fictionalizations of accounts specifically from the Bible—is perhaps one of the trickiest genres/eras out there. You can only take so many creative liberties without being branded unbiblical and inaccurate, but sticking to the Bible word-for-word is pointless when it comes to fictionalizing its accounts. So you’ve got to find that fine line between historical textbook and fantasy—a line that’s finest when retelling Biblical accounts rather than simply setting a story during the eras of the Bible.
Not only that, but the grittiness and immorality of the Bible (a rather hefty portion of which is entwined with Joseph’s story) is difficult to portray. You either gloss over it and neglect an important part of the Bible and history itself...or you risk being too detailed and disturbing.
So many, many things to grasp and grapple with, and very few authors pull it off...unfortunately, Jill Eileen Smith wasn’t one of the few. The Prince and the Prodigal lacked the characterization and emotion I wanted from the story, and it does tend to err on the more descriptive side.
Now, before I get into the depths of my review, I must say that, yes, the scenes of sexual nature could’ve been handled a little more tastefully. The scenes with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph and Asenath, Judah and Kaella, and Judah and Tamar were fine in my opinion (either short-lived or acceptable when they were between a man and his wife), but the scenes with Tamar and her husbands were rather disturbing, considering everyone’s ages. *shudders*
I can’t necessarily complain, although I know a lot of reviewers already have, because that’s how it is with Biblical fiction. It is arguably the most detailed, dark, gory, and sensual of all Christian fiction—and there’s really no way around that.
So there’s my opinion on the content.
Y’all know if I’m giving a book only three stars and that’s how long my content section is…something’s up.
The beginning starts out really slowly, and I’ll be honest. From the beginning, I could not connect at all with Joseph. Not even a little bit. He seemed like he’d been cut out of the Bible and pasted into this book...and that’s not as good as it sounds. He lacked characterization, development, and heart.
Which is crazy, right? This is Joseph. The king of dreams, you know?
Unfortunately, the dreams are almost like an afterthought rather than a pivotal part of the story, and that aspect of his character is never really explored. Even when he interprets the cupbearer, baker, and Phararoh’s dreams, there seems to be very little thought or emotion involved. It’s all like a lifeless transaction, which was so disappointing, because I see that as one of the most interesting and inspiring part of his story.
Apart from that, he was perfect. He literally did nothing wrong, and Smith goes so far as to insinuate that she wrote him like that entirely on purpose, saying that some see Joseph as almost like Jesus. Which is great in theory, as we are all supposed to be like Jesus and be a reflection of Him, but that doesn’t mean we can put ourselves or others on pedestals...not even book characters like Joseph. I wanted something from him—some sign that he was human and not a perfect angel (and even angels aren’t perfect)—and I really wanted someone to mention how cruel and unjust it was of Jacob to play favorites! Instead, both he and Joseph are regarded as perfect and justified in their every action, whereas Joseph is too perfect and Jacob is literally ripping his family apart from the inside out.
Of course, y’all know where that leaves Joseph’s brothers. They were all cruel, heartless brutes with no thought nor care for anyone at all. Yes, that was in part due to the fact that they didn’t serve God (which means Joseph and Jacob’s service to God made them absolutely righteous)...but even heathens have hearts. I do understand that in God’s eyes, those who serve Him with their whole hearts are righteous and those who do not are wholly wicked...but this story wasn’t written from God’s perspective; it was written from man’s, and therefore the good guys can’t be good all the time and the bad guys can actually do good things sometimes.
I dunno, it just would’ve been nice to see more depth to everyone’s characters. Really Dinah’s was the only one who was given any depth in the beginning, and yet her role in the story was so unnecessary! She didn’t have much of a role at all, actually.
Later on, Judah’s character is defined more...which I appreciate and was kinda the point of the story...but what stood out to me was that he didn’t really have an arc. He never had a moment of repentance or reconciliation with God. He didn’t make an effort to change his ways and serve Him. There was really no redemption for him; just a quiet shift into believing in God’s existence and His commandments rather than actually having faith in Him and serving Him.
And the crazy thing is...he was supposed to have an arc.
Believe it or not, it was Tamar who had the most characterization and development. Her character was defined and explored rather thoroughly, to the point where I began to feel sympathy for her—which would’ve been spectacular...if this had been a story about Tamar. She really stole the show, at least in the last half, while everyone else—from the other secondary characters to even the main characters—faded into the background.
Speaking of...I would’ve liked more depth added to Potiphar and his wife...and Pharaoh...and even the jailer and cupbearer and baker.
What didn’t help the characters or the story as a whole was having so many POVs. We have a couple scenes with Reuben, scenes with Jacob, Dinah, Kaella, Asenath, of course Judah and Joseph, perhaps even a couple others...sure, it filled in some blanks in the story, but it also made things very scattered and difficult to pinpoint the true purpose of the story. Had we stuck with just Judah, Joseph, and Jacob (the three Js), I think the story overall could’ve flowed smoother and the characters could’ve been developed better.
Instead, we focused way too much on Tamar and all her drama. Like...how did that enhance the story? A quick chapter could’ve dealt with seven chapters’ worth of drama, and then we could’ve moved on to Judah wrestling with bitterness and guilt or Joseph learning about forgiveness or something that pertained to the central plot and theme of the story!
As you can believe it, the ending was so rushed! We finally make it to the best part, the culmination of the entire book...and, in reality, perhaps twenty years or more...and we get, like, two or three chapters at best. All of that...for nothing.
Smith’s prose was decent enough; she wrote the setting rather well, even if the dialogue was a little out-of-place at times. “Sleep with me” just sounds a little too 21th century to me. The Bible uses “know,” “lay,” and “go into,” in that context, which is still probably not accurate for the time, language, and culture...but I feel like they would’ve been a better substitute than “sleep with.” Was sleep even used as a euphemism for sex two hundred years ago, let alone in 1800 BC?
Plus, “come sleep with me” is the worst. Pickup line. Ever. Y’all, we have got to work on our seduction tactics in the literary community.
In the end, the character development was lacking, the themes were never fully explored, and the plot seemed scattered. I have only one thing to say: Dreamworks did it better. Sure, Joseph: King of Dreams wasn’t perfect, but it captured Joseph’s soul, his heart. It captured the emotions of the story and made the struggles relatable (“You Know Better Than I,” anyone?). It put emphasis on Joseph’s dreams, his relationship with God, his personality, his journey to forgiveness.
Had Smith combined that beautiful arc Dreamworks’ movie wove together with Judah’s story, The Prince and the Prodigal might’ve knocked the ball out of the park...but as it was, it felt rather lifeless and not as poignant as the true story really is.
Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of this book was provided by the publisher, publicist, or author, including NetGalley. All opinions expressed are my own.
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About the Author
Jill Eileen Smith is the bestselling, award-winning author of the Wives of King David series, the Daughters of the Promised Land, the Wives of the Patriarchs, and The Loves of King Solomon series. Her research has taken her from the Bible to Israel, and she particularly enjoys learning how women lived in Old Testament times.
When she isn’t writing, she loves to spend time with her family and friends, read stories that take her away, ride her bike to the park, snag date nights with her hubby, try out new restaurants, or play with her lovable, “helpful” cat Tiger. Jill lives with her family in southeast Michigan.
Contact Jill through email (email@example.com), her website (http://www.jilleileensmith.com), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/jilleileensmith), or Twitter (https://twitter.com/JillEileenSmith).
Yours in spirit and script,
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