Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review: Pope Joan

Summary: For a thousand years her existence has been denied. She is the legend that will not die–Pope Joan, the ninth-century woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to become the only female ever to sit on the throne of St. Peter. Now in this riveting novel, Donna Woolfolk Cross paints a sweeping portrait of an unforgettable heroine who struggles against restrictions her soul cannot accept.

Brilliant and talented, young Joan rebels against medieval social strictures forbidding women to learn. When her brother is brutally killed during a Viking attack, Joan takes up his cloak–and his identity–and enters the monastery of Fulda. As Brother John Anglicus, Joan distinguishes herself as a great scholar and healer. Eventually, she is drawn to Rome, where she becomes enmeshed in a dangerous web of love, passion, and politics. Triumphing over appalling odds, she finally attains the highest office in Christendom–wielding a power greater than any woman before or since. But such power always comes at a price . . .

In this international bestseller, Cross brings the Dark Ages to life in all their brutal splendor and shares the dramatic story of a woman whose strength of vision led her to defy the social restrictions of her day. -- Three Rivers Press


Earlier this month, my book club read and discussed POPE JOAN by Donna Woolfolk Cross. I had read the book almost ten years ago (or maybe more -- it was before I kept a reading journal), and I had enjoyed it a great deal back then. I don't do a lot of re-reads, but I figured if I wanted to take part in our discussion, I probably shouldn't depend on my questionable memory. I have to admit that I did appreciate POPE JOAN this time around, but I'm not sure it held the exact same magic for me as it did when I first read it. (I think that's pretty typical for me as far as re-reads go unless it's a book like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.)

Having said that, I do think POPE JOAN is an excellent example of "good" historical fiction. There are so many elements of this story which make it a quality read. The story is fascinating, the characters are interesting, and the historical aspects of the novel are so well-done. Plus there is action, suspense, deception, love, betrayal and more. POPE JOAN really does have something for everyone.

I could go on and on about the storyline and the characters, but suffice it to say that I thought they were terrific. The idea of a female pope, or really any woman disguising herself as a man, makes for a very interesting book -- you have to admit that you are curious about how she pulled it off. But I also really appreciated how well the characters were developed. I think Joan was a very "real" character that female readers could relate to, and I enjoyed seeing her experiences as both a man and a woman.

I think what I most enjoyed about POPE JOAN, though, were the historical elements. It was apparent that Ms. Cross did some very thorough research about this time period and she did a wonderful job of incorporating the facts into this story. However, she also wisely selected a topic without a great deal of of historical information. This gave her the ability to really create wonderful characters with amazing lives. I thought Ms. Cross did an excellent job of merging the fact and fiction and making the story believable. And isn't that what really makes historical fiction special?

One thing that I appreciated more with my second read of POPE JOAN was how much this book addressed the topics of feminism and the role of women. Joan did manage to rise to success in a time when society did not value women at all, but she also had to disguise herself as a man to do so. In addition, she had to make so many sacrifices throughout her life including not having a relationship with her family, not being able to marry the man she loved, and never having the opportunity to be a mother. While Joan's case was certainly extreme, I think woman throughout the ages can relate to Joan and the sacrifices she had to make to be successful in a man's world.

My book club was fortunate that the author Donna Woolfolk Cross called into our meeting to discuss her novel with us. It was an extremely interesting conversation, and I just love how passionate Ms. Cross is about her book ... and the movie based on her book. I think we all agreed that we gained some valuable insight into Joan's story as well as the research Ms. Cross conducted while writing it. If you are interested in learning more about the book and the author, then check out this interview.

I highly recommend POPE JOAN for book clubs who enjoy historical fiction books. The story is captivating and there are actually quite a few things to discuss. I can say this with certainty since my club had a wonderful time talking about the role of women throughout history. There is a reading guide which will help you to keep your conversation on track, but our group didn't really find it necessary to use the exact questions. Some of the topics for discussion include feminism, education, love, secrets, and faith vs. intellect/reason. We had some fantastic discussion about Joan's character as well as her motivations. The author also loves to do author chats (she does about three a week) so I also highly recommend contacting her too.

I highly recommend POPE JOAN if you are a fan of historical fiction or books about the strength of women. It's a very interesting read that is guaranteed to entertain you!

9 comments:

Natasha @ Maw Books said...

Excellent Julie! My book club was also fortunate to receive a phone call from Donna when we read it last year. And then even more fortunate when the movie happened to be playing in a local film festival and Donna flew out for the screening. After the film we were able to talk about the book again. It was great. I was really surprised with just how much I liked this book. I really enjoyed it.

bermudaonion said...

I think that's why I rarely re-read books. Even if I can't remember all of the details, I remember enough of the book to destroy the magic the second time around. This book does sound like it would be magical the first time around.

Meghan said...

I enjoy rereading, but I do think it isn't the same as the first go, and not all books can hold up to it. I like what I can discover on the second read. I'll probably read Pope Joan again; I don't know when, but I'd really like to! I wonder if my reaction would be the same.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I can't believe I haven't read this yet - I have it, but somehow it keeps getting buried by other books. But you remind me to unearth it and read it!

Jenny Girl said...

Thanks for reminding about this one Julie! Great review.

pinkflipflops said...

This sounds really interesting, I need to remember to look for it at the library.

justpeachy36 said...

I just added this one to my Wish List... Great review! I love historical fiction.

Alyce said...

I've been meaning to read this one for a while, but with all of the other books on my shelf it's taken a back seat. Your review was a good reminder for me.

Mystica said...

I read this a while ago and loved it. It kept me enthralled where I just had to finish it in one go.