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Book Review: The Poet Prince

July 17, 2010

The Poet Prince
Kathleen McGowan
Touchstone Hardcover/Simon & Schuster
June 2010 $25.99 407 pages

With historical roots in Italian Renaissance and apocryphal gospels, The Poet Prince offers an interesting take on art and Christianity. The idea of positioning Mary Magdalene as a central female principle in the original Church isn’t new, nor is the idea of secret societies dedicated to preserving the beliefs the established Church got wrong. Countless other authors have drawn on the secrets of the Church to fuel suspense and unrest, often to highly famous, but not very well written results. (Dan Brown, I’m looking at you.) By building an interesting take on art history and some emotionally immediate historical fiction into her mythology, McGowan gets the mix right.

Although this is the third in a series, McGowan refers enough to previous escapades to get newcomers grounded. In the 21st century, we have the author Maureen Paschal (whose surname is positively Dickensian with double meaning) who has discovered alternate Gospels, preaching the sacredness of romantic love, soul mates, and art as a conduit of angelic blessing. It also brings Maureen to the realization that her prophetic dreams, and feelings of connection to the past mark her as an Expected One, not only discovering new Christian mythology, but up to her neck in the center of it. Of course, publishing these ideas puts her at the center of a controversy in the Church, including peril to her own life.

The action of The Poet Prince brings Maureen and friends to Florence, Italy, where a parallel story begins, told to her by her spiritual teacher, Destino. The chapters set in Lorenzo de Medici’s world of art, political conspiracy, and Christian mysticism are an absolute delight to read. McGowan does a wonderful job describing the compassionate leader Lorenzo, and his devotion to both sound politics and the creation of beautiful art. Lorenzo’s beloved boyhood friend, Sandro, grows up to be the talented artist, Botticelli. In keeping with McGowan’s worldview, Lorenzo meets his soul mate, the young girl, Colombina, at an early age. They are doomed by political exigencies of marriage, to be apart, though they remain devoted to each other. Some of their passages of tortured spiritual romance got me choked up.

One of the aspects of McGowan’s worldview that was particularly interesting was her take on Renaissance art. She characterizes truly gifted artists as “angelics,” secretly flouting the Renaissance church by infusing their art with strong emotion, classical themes, and honoring the female principle of the Magdalene rather than the Virgin Mary.  Although I haven’t seen most of the paintings she references, except in reproductions, she describes them well enough that I’m ready to believe in her symbolic take.

With the strength of the historical sections, and the vividness of her art history writing, it’s hard not to notice that much of the 21st century plotting doesn’t fare as well, or seem nearly so creative. It may be that Dan Brown ruined this particular sandbox for subsequent authors, but the plot of religious conspiracy/mystic visions/peril doesn’t fare so well, or so believably, as the sections McGowan sets in the past. It’s easier to believe symbols and visions against a Renaissance backdrop- the immediate urgency and conviction of Maureen’s visions make her too much of a superhero character, in a way I have trouble buying. It’s telling that I felt so wholly invested in the lives of Lorenzo and his Colombina, in Sandro and the nasty menace Savonarola, and less so in the 21st century cast. Not sure what it’s telling me— that I need to go read McGowan’s prequels for proper context, or that I would rather see more of McGowan’s excellent historical scene setting than the suspense plot.

I wonder whether readers who weren’t raised Catholic will get as much out of McGowan’s writing as I did. I was wary, at first, about her Christian secret conspiracies, but the humanist approach won me over. As I said, it’s not the first time I’ve seen, and enjoyed, the perspective of Mary Magdalane coming front and center in a sensual, gnostic belief system. Some aspects of McGowan’s take on Mary Magdalene reminded me of a book I read several years ago, and loved, The Wild Girl, by Michele Roberts.  The Poet Prince reawakened a curiosity I’ve had for a long time.

One of these days, I owe it to myself as a lapsed, slightly bruised Catholic, to go back and read some of the historical scholarship about Gnostic or apocryphal Gospels, or alternate views of Jesus’s teaching that might have gotten lost in translation.

Thanks to Ashley Hewlett of Touchstone Publicity for sending me a copy.

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