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The Passion of Mary Magdalen: A Novel (Maeve Chronicles) Hardcover – April 1, 2006
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*Starred Review* Anyone not ensconced in a cave lately has heard the rumor that Mary Magdalene was literally the bride of Christ. The Da Vinci Code (2003) popularized the theory sufficiently to make Magdalene pilgrimages big business in France, where she ostensibly established the French royal family. Magdalene fans are in for more surprises in Cunningham's classy, sexy novel, which embraces the Magdalene's reputation for prostitution to the extent of casting her as a sacred whore serving the goddess Isis. For Cunningham, Mary is Maeve, a big, strapping, redheaded Celt sold into slavery in Rome and bought for her ample charms by a renowned domina (i.e., madam). Cunningham's big book is first an absorbing historical novel about down-and-dirty slave life in Rome and then a visionary fantasy about the Magdalene's life as Jesus' gentile wife. Besides Maeve's endearingly slutty second owner, Paulina, few characters participate in both, but in both are characters well known from other texts; for example, in the first the king of the "golden bough," in the second the Virgin Mary, who, holy though she is, is also quite dotty. Cunningham's wild, breakneck style only cements the suspicion that this will be--besides snapped up by Magdalene fans, Celtophiles, feminists, and lovers of a good yarn--controversial. Those unready for lesbianism and sex with the Redeemer between the same covers may blanch as well as flush. Patricia Monaghan
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Top Customer Reviews
Maeve Rhuad is a flame haired princess / priestess of the Celtic Isles when she meets Yeshua, called Esus by the Celts. He's traveled to her land to learn Druidic mysteries, but finds a soulmate, a woman he will passionately love for all time. With youthful joy, they call themselves, "eternal twins in the great starry womb" of the universe.
Life's unpredictable difficulties separate the two devoted lovers. Yeshua returns to the Holy Land to continue his quest, serving the One God, and Maeve is dragged to Rome in chains by conquerors who sell her into slavery and prostitution. The Vine and Fig Tree - an omen of her future life with Yeshua -- is a high-class establishment. All clients are welcomed equally because every stranger could be a god or an angel. Life is actually pleasant for a time, but Maeve has two large problems. She's determined to find her beloved Yeshua, and can't keep her sassy mouth shut. Maeve can cuss, bluster, and converse in five languages. Her bold nature ends Maeve's time in Rome and she's sold into slavery. Throughout this dark period, she gains the support and devotion of a Proletarian, Joseph of Arimathea.
Years pass. Maeve is freed from slavery and heads for Jerusalem to search for Yeshua, Esus, her lover, now known as Jesus of Nazareth. From Jerusalem, Maeve travels to the green hills of Galilee to Nazareth, and finally the port city of Magdala. It's in Magdala that she regains her full power as a priestess. With the help of friends and followers, she founds the Temple Magdalen. Here, we're drawn deep into the private lives of biblical icons: Joseph of Arimathea; Mary, mother of Jesus; Lazarus, Mary, and Martha; the Twelve followers of Jesus; John of the burning eyes, the Baptist; and Yeshua, Savior of the Jews, beloved man with the wonderful laugh. Maeve's memories of these people are not reverent or respectful - all have human foibles - but her narrative is often surprising, touching, and tender.
Jesus struggles in his efforts to draw a fine line between being human and divine. The only thing he doesn't question is his love for Maeve, his wife, judged unclean by Jewish law. Fellow Jews, Apostles, family, devoted followers, enemies and friends resent his devotion to a prostitute. Both Yeshua and Maeve know and believe that love is stronger than death, and in their case it is.
Based on historic writings, Cunningham fills in the lost years of Yeshua's life not chronicled in the Bible. But this is a story well and lovingly told, of a man whose fate was to die for all humanity and of the gentile woman who loved him through life and beyond. Lover, husband, healer, miracle worker, teller of parables, and King of Kings, Jesus was first a man. This is a fascinating book, historically and in every other way.
What I think Elizabeth is doing here is to take her knowledge of and reverence for Christianity - she comes from a line of I think eleven Episcopal priests - and her joy in neo-paganism, and see what the two have to say to each other: literally. What would happen if these apparent opposites actually made love to each other?
Personally I think that the world is in one of those major religious transition periods, comparable to the period when Christianity began, when new religions are being created and old ones transformed. This is more than a novel - it's a contribution to creating 21st century religion. I love that Elizabeth is able to be both reverent and irreverent, bawdy and holy at the same time. I don't know of anyone who has done that so well. When not writing novels she loves and sings the blues, and a Bessie Smith kind of raunchiness and deep humanity comes through in this novel.
The book is a curiosity because it is a fantasy (I'm sure Elizabeth doesn't think the historical Mary Magdalen was an immortal Celtic priestess) and yet is full of convincing historical detail. I haven't read too many that do that well - Vonda McIntyre's "The Moon and The Sun" comes to mind. There are many moments of delight in this book and of deep insight about the nature of love.
But if you are attached to your preconceptions, whether it's your Christianity, your neo-paganism, your secular mistrust of all religion, or your purist take on historical novels, be prepared to be shocked. In this case, it will be worth it. We have a new world to create out there and this is sweet and exhilarating food for the journey.
Boy was I wrong! This marvellous book in the humorous vein of Heller's 'God Knows' and with an sense of feminist magic to its interpretation of the life of Mary of Magdalene is one of the most entertaining books I've read this year. Starting with Maeve on the auction block it has held my attention through almost all its pages (OK I did skip a bit in her life with Paulina because I couldn't wait for her to get to the Galilee). I'm about 50 pages from the end and (not being of the Christian faith) have found the book utterly fascinating and completely inoffensive. I don't enjoy books that harp on religiosity and this one does not. It may not be for the devout believer. Its much more focussed on spirituality and the validity of the many religions around the world and on the possibility of multiple interpretations of the new testatment. If you think you have an open mind and a good sense of humor this one will be a keeper!