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The Book of Love by Kathleen McGowan
"What's love got to do with it?"
By Professor W
March 14, 2009
When Kathleen McGowan launched her Magdalene Line series in 2006 with The Expected One, as part of her promotion of the book, she told everyone who would listen that she was personally a direct descendant of the union of Christ and Mary Magdalene. She gave various reasons as to why the evidence of her of her fantastic family history could not be made public; the first book was a fictionalized account of her own life experiences. The second book in the series, The Book of Love (Touchstone, released March 10, 2009), continues this device.
To cite a major figure from what has been the bedrock of Christian thinking for nearly two thousand years (The New Testament, Gospel of John, Chapter 18:38), Pontius Pilate asks Christ: “What is truth?” At least in the context of The Book of Love (BoL), I have an answer for Pilate. The truth is that the BoL is an appallingly written, hysterical (I certainly don’t mean “historical”) thriller with wooden characters, clunking dialogue and descriptions, sloppy historical research and a fantasist’s “re-imagining” of the Christian story. Strip out the spurious claims the author makes about herself and the invented pap about secret religious finds of documents written by Mary Magdalene (The Expected One), and now by Christ, in The BoL, and you end up with a poorly written, abysmally edited, slushy romantic thriller, which wouldn’t be out of place in Harlequin’s 1950s catalogue. TEO set the bar very low and The BoL keeps well below the bar—perhaps below the ground.
In a sound-bite, BoL is “crass history, amateur romantic liaisons all toe-curling; avoid now”. The first book sold on sensationalism without substance; the latest sales figures for The Book of Love show that it’s very hard a second time to pull the wool over all but the most gullible readers’ eyes. Perhaps that is not an inappropriate idiom, since the heroine of the novels is frequently referred to as the “Shepherdess”. It begs the question as to what her beloved and her followers indeed are. Baah!
What do I mean by “crass history”? Maybe it’s a phenomenon of the sad google-whacking age in which we live that research is carried out at a keyboard, occasionally picking out an interesting nugget, but, as in The BoL, ostensibly raiding internet forums, picking up unrelated connections and putting them together to form an incoherent, silly whole.
Ms McGowan lays out her “historical” approach in the Author’s Notes to The Book of Love:
“The subject matter of this book is one that, to my knowledge, has never seen the light of publication anywhere in the world… All history is conjecture. All of it. It is the height of folly and arrogance for anyone to say that he or she knows definitively what happened in the past. We piece it together the best we can, with the shreds of evidence that exist… When we are very lucky, the pieces come together to form a beautiful and cohesive collage. The difference between the mosaic that a historical novelist creates and that which a historian constructs occurs in the chasm somewhere of what we accept individually as evidence. I tend to think that novelists prefer to work in Technicolor, whereas academics choose to work in the realm of black and white. Both have merits in the worlds of entertainment and education, and I hope that one day we will all learn to complement each other on our mutual search for the glories of our human history…”
This is, of course, complete balderdash. History relies on serious research and historic method; novelists invent to entertain and make money. The former have a social responsibility (the serious academics, at least), the latter have no obligation to truth and evidence, but only have resort to their imaginations. The danger comes, as with Ms McGowan, when an author purports to be writing historic truths, which she encourages others to believe--without any foundation for such a position. Elaine Pagels, a Princeton academic and religious historian, is qualified to write her historic analysis of the Gnostic Gospels and the early Christian church. To my knowledge, Ms McGowan has no historic training or experience and simply writes what she hopes will be mass-market fiction. When Ms McGowan describes herself as a “historian” and a “journalist”, she is not using either term according to the dictionary definitions of the words. Nothing in her two novels aspires to Technicolor. Her writing is pure monochrome.
The BoL reveals blindingly clearly how unfamiliar Ms McGowan is--not only with history but with actual, current verifiable facts. This is evident in her descriptions of Chartres Cathedral, which she claims inspires her as no other place on earth and which she claims to visit annually. However:
- it is extraordinary that Ms McGowan incorrectly states in her book that the crypt is open only once a week at 11am for a guided tour in French. A little more research might have helped her to realize that the crypt is open each day, for three separate tours. It is ridiculous to claim (p437) that “the crypt is off-limits to the general public”. For less than three euros anyone can spend 45 minutes inside the crypt enjoying an informative guided tour. I would strongly recommend it.
- the author rails against the supposed damage to the labyrinth--caused, she says, by the congregation’s chairs above the labyrinth. The labyrinth is eight hundred years old. The chair damage is quite minor. The chairs are placed there--not for any conspiratorial reason--but for purely religious attendance purposes. It is not true to say that the labyrinth is free of chairs from April to September. This is simply a fact.
- astonishingly, Ms McGowan describes the labyrinth as a “spiritual tool’ (p. 508), which she believes was designed by the collaborative efforts of no lesser beings than King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba and Jesus Christ. It would appear that Ms McGowan is unfamiliar with the date of the Chartres labyrinth and the fact that labyrinths originated in the Egyptian era.
- as for Ms McGowan’s speculations about mediaeval labourers not being paid for their work on building the cathedral, this is entirely without substance. Familiarity with Philip Ball’s recent Universe of Stone might have helped her to avoid some of the more glaring errors.
There is a world of difference between rubbernecking around Europe’s historic sites on a tour-bus and executing detailed historic research on their histories. The latter requires education, experience, familiarity with historic method and detailed research.
Not only is Ms McGowan an extremely sloppy pseudo-history-writer, but her written style is no better. Her characters are wooden stereotypes. Lame epithets appear like leitmotifs throughout the novel. The hero (Berenger) hardly appears without the epithet “aristocratic”. Remarkably, Berenger is described as being “gifted with an aristocrat’s classical education (p.28). Has the author ever met or spoken to an educated English aristocrat? TV melodramas don’t offer the same information as real-life research. The heroine, Maureen Paschal, is limp, passive and a poor role model for strong women. She is simply wet. Whenever Maureen or any of her Magdalene predecessors are mentioned, the epithet “uncommonly petite” or “coppery auburn hair” are automatically thrown in. There are other adjectives for an author to describe their characters. Thank God/Easa/Mary Magdalene/Ja/Jahweh/Barack Obama or whoever, that there are empowered women in the world who have integrity and inner strength; shame they don’t figure amongst Ms McGowan’s two-dimensional nobodies.
The dialogue and descriptions in the book are embarrassingly bad. Here are some of the better examples:
- “She only had to wonder for a moment. After that, she was in his arms as the world melted away around them.” (p.57). Yeuch! There’s never a bucket when you need one.
- “While the Romans continued to build superlatively…” (p.101). Superlatively?
- “Philip’s gospel was keenly focused on… Mary Magdalene’s importance as the beloved of Jesus. It was by no means a casual relationship according to Philip; it was committed, it was sexual, and it was holy.” (p.130). This is a complete misrepresentation of the Gospel of Philip.
- “It was simply a paper cut, albeit a particularly vicious one that ran across the inside of her middle finger and began to bleed. And it hurt disproportionately, as paper cuts are wont to do…” (p.408). Good to know; I’ll remember that for future first-aid emergencies! and my favourite:
- “He reached up gently and cupped her chin in his hand. “It’s time to awaken, my Sleeping Beauty. My Dove”.” (p.424). A normal woman would see this as a call to put her head under the pillow or to call her lawyer.
Does Touchstone not have an editor to excise this sort of writing?
At least Ms McGowan avoids falling into the trap from her first novel, where the Gospel of Mary Magdalene at Arques is written in the style and mindset of Britney Spears. This time, when Maureen finally gets her uncommonly petite hands on the Book of Love, because the book is written in Greek or Aramaic (Maureen cannot tell which!), Maureen and we are spared Ms McGowan’s attempt to translate the actual words of Christ into contemporary American. Instead, the eponymous book starts to give off light and “the light penetrated Maureen’s body; she could feel its heat and radiance filling her. And as it did, she was absorbing the Book of Love. She did not need to read it or see it in translation…”
Now, that’s really cool. I own a copy of the Picatrix. Sadly, Arabic is not one of my languages (I’ve read the German translation). So, I now see I don’t have to read the original Picatrix; instead, I can just let its light penetrate my body. It’s even better (and cheaper!) than a Kindle!
For me, the most sickening aspect of the BoL is that the author, who is a tremendous self-publicist, peddles it as containing religious truths. Her website implies that it contains: “…sublime teachings, marvelous revelations, the most secret words confided by our Lord Jesus Christ to the beloved disciple. Their power would be such that all hatred, all anger, all jealousy would vanish from the hearts of men. The Divine Love, like a new flood, would submerge all souls and never again would blood be shed upon the Earth.” I take cash or credit card.
If one strips out the fantasy that the author is directly descended from Christ and Mary Magdalene’s sacred union, the reader is left with a mawkish and maudlin yarn, which lacks either pace, style, or interest.
Anyone who is familiar with the relevant internet forums will have come across almost all of the subjects of the BoL, treated by original researchers. And as for the love, which the book purports to convey, anyone who has seen the alleged threats of litigation made by Ms McGowan and the aggressive tactics employed by the author’s acolytes against anyone who dares not to rave about her books will question the depth of this love. Everyone I have talked to about the BoL and TEO has been seething--angry to have wasted brain-processing time on such worthless novels. Maybe an education and a fine mind put one at a disadvantage to receive the author’s love?
Bill Bryson, a literate and talented American writer (himself a journalist who is able to prove his journalistic career) once stayed in a terrible Australian hotel. On leaving, the hotel receptionist asked Bryson if he would be returning to the hotel. Bryson replied that he would sooner carry out bowel surgery on himself in the woods with a stick. That is exactly how I feel about the prospect of reading another adolescent fantasy by Kathleen McGowan. We’ve had the Gospel of the Beautiful Wife, Mary Magdalene in TEO, the Gospel of Jesus in BoL. Presumably, the third volume contains “God: The Autobiography: Volume One, The Chaos Years”? Non, merci!