The Language of Paradise

W.W. Norton & Company
April 6, 2015
September 11, 2018

Set in nineteenth-century New England, this exquisite novel tests a woman’s love against her husband’s utopian quest.

Sophy Hedge, the daughter of the town minister, falls in love with Gideon Birdsall, a gifted theology student assisting her father with a Hebrew lexicon. Sophy, an amateur artist, is drawn to his angelic looks, which seem to embody his intellect, passion, and idealism, while Gideon glimpses in her a child of nature unbound by convention. Yet after they wed, Gideon’s restlessness worries her, and she struggles to connect with him as he flounders in his new roles of pastor and family head. When the mysterious and magnetic teacher Leander Solloway enters their lives, Gideon believes he has found a like soul. As the schoolmaster gains influence over her husband, a newly pregnant Sophy translates her fears into secret paintings.

In a daring experiment to unlock the mysteries of the first language, the primal tongue spoken in the Garden of Eden, Gideon and Leander attempt to recreate a pristine and tightly controlled environment in which to raise the baby. Isolated from the influence of family and neighbors, they hope to witness the genesis of a pure speech while “raising up this fallen garden by the same means as it was created: word by word.” But “Paradise is a worm that eats at the brain,” and Sophy, unaware of their intentions until it is too late, must decide whether to live in the world her husband has made or escape to save her child and herself.

Addressing the timeless issues of creation, possession, and the elusive dream of perfection, The Language of Paradise captures the fragility of human longing.

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Praise for The Language of Paradise

In her ambitious, and painstakingly researched, debut novel, Ms. Moss takes the reader on a compelling journey into 1830s New England, in which repressive Calvinism runs headlong into a Transcendentalist quest to find an elusive utopia right here on Earth…. (A) precocious and bold first novel…”
– Chloe T. Barlow, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Compelling, powerful, lit by art and language, this novel of ideas embodies in the struggles of a passionate family a great intellectual and spiritual conflict. And what a family this is! Moss’s brilliantly realized characters will stay with me for a long time.”
– Andrea Barrett, author of Archangel and Ship Fever
You’ve never quite read a book like Barbara Klein Moss’s The Language of Paradise before. Entirely original in its conception and execution, it is a masterfully written, deftly detailed novel about early American intellectual, spiritual, and practical life…and what might lie beyond it.”
– Debra Spark, author of The Pretty Girl
This is an entrancing, deeply troubling and daring story of the human spirit bound to earth, dispossessed of Paradise, and longing to return. It is so compelling I actually dreamed it at night. Highly recommended.”
Historical Novel Society
The Language of Paradise quickly carves its own stunningly unique niche in the realm of historical fiction. The indelibly drawn characters think with their hearts, love with their minds as they navigate their faith and their passions. Moss’s debut novel is unconventional in all the right ways.”
– Kimberly Elkins, author of What Is Visible
(starred review) A linguistic tour de force whose deft exploration of language, intellect, family, love, nature, and art will delight discerning readers everywhere, especially fans of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James.”
Library Journal
Barbara Klein Moss inhabits the hearts and minds of her characters with such empathy that it’s hard not to feel that she witnessed their complicated lives first hand. I am full of admiration for the way in which The Language of Paradise brings to life the struggles of faith and family. An utterly absorbing novel.”
– Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy
The novel’s world never collapses under the weight of the substantial research that informs it; it is vibrant and, especially in the second half, engrossing. Throughout, Moss’s language is precise and controlled, effectively describing the inner lives of Gideon and, in particular, Sophy, whose initial childlike innocence makes way for something much stronger and harder earned.”
Publishers Weekly
As with all great literature, the themes here have universal appeal: the quest for personal paradise … and how this can drive people mad; the projection of qualities onto others; and the disillusionment that can result therein. But there is levity here, too, as Sophy transcends her experiences and grows into a wise, powerful woman.”
– Dorothy Reno, Washington Independent Review of Books
(4 12 stars) The author’s faithful rendering of language and custom creates a sense of the stifling paternal mentality that defines women’s behavior as Sophy is forced to break with a lifetime of concession and obedience to save her family from an unnatural fate born of the conceits of men.”
– Michael Leonard, Curled Up with a Good Book
(A) profoundly beautiful and surprising book. Passion becomes all the more thrilling in its conscious restraint, while the glory of this world – and the next – glimmers in the everyday surroundings…Moss has created a complex and very real society, pulsing with ambition and moments of grace, as well as with dreams both humble and grand…(A) book that takes us into a dream state while leaving us with a hard look at what it takes to make our way through the here and now.”
– Vickie Fang, Best New Fiction