Book Review–Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Title: Pope Joan
Author: Donna Woolfolk Cross
Format: Electronic
Written: 1996
Published: 2009

The Popes have been in the news a lot in recent weeks; all the news channels were infatuated with all things Papal as they waited on the white smoke.  I get it, being kind of a Papal junkie myself.    A few years ago I went on a binge of Pope books–there are a surprising number of fictional accounts of various people becoming the Holy Father.   It’s sort of like winning the religious lottery and I’m a fan of lottery-winner books.*  Oddly enough, I missed this particular Pope story in that last whipround and when someone mentioned it in passing a couple of weeks ago I knew that I had to read this book.  

I mean, what’s not to love?  It’s got feminism, religion, medieval medicine, romance and animals.   In fact, it was eerily like someone sat down with a checklist of Katherine Coble’s Favourite Literary Tropes and penned a novel against it.  You’d think, of course, that I’d just be delighted and rapturously raving about it.

Sadly, that isn’t going to happen.

Pope Joan is a novel based on the legend of the only woman to hold the office of Pope in the Roman Catholic church.   The legend is routinely denounced by the Vatican; it’s dismissed as Protestant propaganda and an attempt to undercut the church by showing the Pope as a mockery.   Whenever they say that, however, I’m bemused.   Frankly the idea of a woman disguising herself as a man and dedicating her life to the service of God isn’t something I’m inclined to mock.  In fact I’m pretty much of the mind that that is one of the coolest things ever–barring, of course, the fact that she had to choose between her God and her genitalia.

The novel takes the few facts which are known about the woman who lived as John Anglicus in the mid-ninth century and embroiders upon them.   It started out compellingly, with a prologue as gripping as any I’ve ever read.   From that opening scene with Joan’s bloody birth into freezing England the book moves briskly through her childhood and follows each turn of events that shapes the unloved youngest child of a craven priest and his Saxon mistress into the devout scholar.

The book is entirely readable and I don’t want to discourage you from looking into it if you’re in the mood for some Dark Ages fiction.   But I will say that I’m not giving it any higher rating than three worms because of this:      The initial part of the story which focuses on Joan’s childhood with her family was so good.  I really came to care about her and wanted to keep knowing her.  But after spending hours of time with Joan I not only didn’t care one iota about her and was actually kind of sick of her in the end.   Past a certain point in the story it was as though Woolfolk-Cross stopped caring about writing a compelling character and just decided to stick in a bunch of stick figures that would let her pontificate (ooh! good topical pun, me!) about feminism, faith, doubt and all those weighty topics.

Hey.  I’m smart enough to want to pick up a book about history.  Let me be smart enough to intuit your message without stopping the action to give tortured paragraphs about how awfully women were regarded and treated  and how that made baby Pope Joan cry.   After awhile I really wanted to just skim because I couldn’t take going from three or four pages of decent story into a dead-end of repetitious rhetoric.

The other issue I had was the completely squickish love story.   I don’t want to get into too much spoiling detail but I found the central relationship between Joan and her Stock Love Interest to be incredibly disturbing.   That, I think, as much as the screediness of the latter half of the book is what detracted for me.

I suppose I would say that if you’re truly curious and truly into reading the religious version of a Cinderella story this book might be worth your time.   I’d definitely encourage you to borrow it from the library though.

Three bookworms it is.  3bookworms

*There are also a surprising number of those.

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