Review

The Priest's Madonna

by Amy Hassinger



Recent literary events have shown only too well how dangerous those
places are where history and legend collide, especially when it
comes to religious controversy. Those who derive "facts" or even
strong theoretical persuasions from seductive threads linking what
might have happened with what did happen find that one person's
scholarship suddenly becomes another's heresy --- or yet another's
plagiarism.

But the self-declared scholarly fiction writer is in an entirely
different class. History, mystery, legend and controversy become
colorful and endlessly malleable ingredients answerable only to the
fertile imagination. And it is here, in the immensely varied
terrain of blended Christian legends and artifacts, that Amy
Hassinger has truly excelled in THE PRIEST'S MADONNA.

Through detailed and engaging background notes to her readers,
Hassinger explains how a real place (the village church of
Rennes-le-Château in southern France) and real historical
characters (parish priest Father Bérenger Saunière and
his lover-housekeeper Marie Dénarnaud) became embroiled in
what seemed to be a minor and commonplace late 19th century
scandal.

But thanks to the notoriety of HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL by Michael
Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, and THE DA VINCI CODE by
Dan Brown --- both books treading an uneasy line between fiction
and nonfiction --- the sudden emergence of immense wealth in that
obscure rural French parish opened up its potential as the locale
for a fascinating, delicate and often bittersweet tale of love,
faith, doubt and amateur archaeology.

With THE PRIEST'S MADONNA Hassinger stepped confidently into a
space being fought over by scholars and lawyers, finding there the
makings of a deeply human story that parallels a young woman's
coming of age with the rise and decline of a promising young priest
who never achieves his long-sought intimacy with God.

Intersecting with this illicit 19th century relationship is one far
older and far more controversial --- the speculation that Mary
Magdalene may have been the secret "wife" of Jesus, who even bore
his child and was eventually exiled to Gaul (France) in the area of
Rennes-le-Château. While the two women are wisely not forced
together (except psychically), the counterpoint of their
first-person recollections and meditations is what gives the novel
its luminous harmony of spirit and momentum. In the roles that
Hassinger designed for them around tantalizing fragments of belief
and legend, both are "priest's madonnas" who create a vibrant
sensual boundary between their ill-fated lovers' carnal and
spiritual lives.

As far as the continuing tension between Christian fact and fiction
goes, Hassinger's novel has brought a welcome and honest balance to
the scene. The knowledge undergirding this unpretentious yet
eloquent love story easily equals that of any number of works
claiming to be serious scholarship in a realm where mystery still
reigns supreme. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch (paulinefinch@rogers.com) on January 19, 2011

The Priest's Madonna
by Amy Hassinger

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Trade
  • ISBN-10: 0425213870
  • ISBN-13: 9780425213872