Books Are Pretty

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Priest's Madonna

I was sitting in one of the training rooms at my new job at the Big Machine, learning how to use the corporation's computer system and chatting with another trainee. Amy Hassinger's new novel The Priest's Madonna was propped next to the monitor, waiting until my lunch break for its turn for my attention.

"I don't think I'd like that book," said the other trainee. "It looks too intellectual for me. And the cover is too creepy."

She pulled a paperback out of her overstuffed purse. "This is more my speed," she said.

"Ack," I may have said in response.

The old cliché warns us not to judge a book by its cover, but we all know this isn't necessarily true. As you can see, covers are not only designed to lure in the reader, but are also designed to warn them away.

The Harlequin romance cover featured here tells the reader, "This book is so awful you could have written it yourself!" For some unfathomable reason, this appeals to some people. Amy King's excellent cover design of The Priest's Madonna successfully weeds out readers that hate to read, and lures in others who sense by looking at the darkly romantic cover that they're in for a gothic historical romance filled with mystery and tragedy. And their assumptions would be pretty much on the money.

King found this gorgeous oil painting via Erich Lessing's Culture and Fine Arts Archives, a resource of more than 37,000 digital photographs of artwork. This painting is such a perfect fit for the book that it's difficult to believe it wasn't created just for it. Entitled "Jeune orpheline au cimetiere," ("Young Orphan in the Cemetery" or "Young Orphan Girl in a Cemetery," depending on your translation), the painting was created in 1824 by Eugène Delacroix, the most important of the 19th century French Romantic painters. Its gorgeous brushstrokes and the intense, upward stare of the beautiful, romantic young girl implies possible danger and a strong sense of mysterious desperation.

The vague sense of danger and desperation is mingled with beauty and romantic longing is at the heart of the novel and radiates throughout.

So, aspiring writers, if you're keeping score at home:

If you want people to read your book, hire

Olga Grlic, whose design of What Do You Do All Day? I've already gushed about, but here it is again:

and now, Amy King.

Olga Grlic
Amy King

That is the official Books Are Pretty shortlist for cover designers.

Now, onto the book itself. Happily, The Priest's Madonna lives up to all the promise the cover delivers.

Based on an actual French mystery, The Priest's Madonna offers Hassinger's theory on Bérenger Saunière, the 19th century country priest of the church in the village of Rennes-le-Château. After living a simple life for many years, Saunière abruptly comes into a vast amount of unaccounted-for wealth, which he lavishes on church reconstruction and on his mistress, Marie Dénaraud, who the village referred to as "The Priest's Madonna," because he worshipped her as he should have worshipped Marie Madeleine (Mary Magdalene).

Several theories abound as to how he acquired his vast amount of wealth, and Hassinger carefully reconstructs the events prior to the mystery and bases her theory on several pieces of historical facts surrounding Rennes-le-Château, combining twelfth-century Visigothic princesses, secret tombs and tunnels, mysterious and ominous letters bricked into the walls of the church.

Running parallel to the romance between Dénaraud and Saunière is the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and Hassinger draws riveting parallels between the two stories and, in the end, connects them both together in a way that both illuminates and obscures the connection between the lives of the secular and the holy.

The Priest's Madonna, though certainly no Harlequin Romance novel, is nonetheless a riveting and thoroughly enjoyable novel, combining fact and fiction to create a historical romance of the very best kind.


The Priest's Madonna
by Amy Hassinger
2006, G.P. Putnam's Sons
310 pages
ISBN: 0-399-15317-9

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