In 1896 Bérenger Saunière, the priest of Rennes-le-Château, suddenly became very wealthy. Has he uncovered clues leading to the hidden treasure of the Knights Templar or information that he is using to blackmail the Catholic Church?
The Priest’s Madonna by Amy Hassinger is based on historical facts: there really was a priest named Bérenger Saunière who came into a great deal of money and whose housekeeper Marie was rumoured to also be his lover. The villagers of Rennes-le-Château dubbed her “the Priest’s Madonna” and Marie carried Bérenger’s secrets to her grave, even though many suspected she knew the truth behind his wealth. Hassinger has taken historical fact, woven in possibility and created a riveting novel that gives Marie a voice to tell her story of faith and doubt, desire and chasteness.
Comparisons will inevitably be made to The Da Vinci Code; however The Priest’s Madonna is more than a clone. While the mystery of what Bérenger may have found is tantalizing, Hassinger’s novel is about relationships and faith, about love, obsession and the consequences of our choices.
Marie and her family moved to Rennes-le-Château in the Languedoc region of France in 1884. Initially receiving a chilly welcome from the villagers, they are integrated into the village life more fully once the new priest begins to board with them. Marie is drawn to the handsome young priest and eventually becomes his housekeeper, eschewing opportunities for marriage and a family of her own.
Marie’s story is told in counterpoint to that of Miryam (Mary Magdalen), the woman many suspect was the lover of Yeshua (Jesus). In the question and answer section of her website, Hassinger addresses why she chose to interweave the Marie/Bérenger story with that of Mary Magdalen/Jesus.
“The parallels with the Marie narrative are clear: forbidden love between a woman and a holy man, the themes of spiritual sickness and health, of faith and doubt, the search for what is meaningful and holy in the physical world.”
Both Marie and Miryam are educated beyond the norm for the villages where they are raised. These strong women are plagued by doubts, demons and seek truth no matter what the cost. Marie chooses to continue to learn, to investigate the Cathars who had settled her area of France and in so doing, learns that the Church is fallible. She chooses to imitate Bérenger, to “imitate his daring, to honor my own thirst for truth over doctrine.” Learning helped both women on their journey to become the consorts of spiritual leaders.
By juxtaposing Marie and Miryam’s stories, Hassinger has crafted a novel that illustrates the timelessness of her themes. Interweaving the history of France at the turn of the twentieth century, scenes of ancient Judea, and the romantic and religious journey of a spirited and intense heroine, The Priest’s Madonna transcends its historical setting, becoming a novel for the seeker within all of us.
The Priest’s Madonna is Amy Hassinger’s second novel, the follow-up to her critically acclaimed debut novel Nina: Adolescence. Hassinger also wrote Finding Katahdin: An Exploration of Maine's Past published in 2001. A graduate of Barnard College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she received her MFA in fiction writing, she and her family make their home in Urbana, Illinois.
See the review posted at The Book Depository - The Priest's Madonna.