Sunday, July 3, 2016

Donna Woolfolk Cross, POPE JOAN

I read this partly because my family was planning a trip to Italy; and I found the book interesting for several reasons. First, I grew up Catholic and never, ever heard about a female pope; but the historical evidence (the author synopsizes it in her notes; I always appreciate that!) is pretty conclusive. Second, I felt like the book (written in 1996) was ambitious and well-written but oddly dated. (I felt this way about Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth--another blockbuster success; did anyone else find this book had a similar feel to Follett's epic?) I'm trying to put my finger on why I wasn't swept up into the story. I agree with some of the other reviews that the number of last-second escapes by Joan-as-John is pretty unbelievable; and I think generally historical fiction written now is grittier and less melodramatic. But I think my biggest difficulty is that the secondary characters are fairly one-dimensional. There are plenty of baddies (my, the Dark Ages were dark and scary)--raiders who plunder and rape, thieves with no conscience, flagrantly corrupt members of the church, and men who are willing to set fire to Rome, kill people, and pay out fortunes in the unending grab for power. There are also (many fewer) unambiguously good folks. But there are very few characters in the gray zone. Joan herself doesn't really have any faults aside from outspokenness; but even that comes off as a sign of her spiritual superiority, her willingness to put herself at risk by speaking up for the wronged and the poor and the powerless. Perhaps as a result, my favorite parts, actually, were about the city of Rome itself--the building of the wall that brought St. Peter's inside the city, the repairs of the aqueducts, the way the pagan buildings were stripped and their materials recycled for the Catholic church. All of that was woven in very adeptly, without making me feel like I was getting a history lesson. That's a real accomplishment!

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