No, I’m not springing another Plaidy on you–I’m going way back in time. Biblical times, namely, with Two Women of Galilee by Mary Rourke, a journalist with a degree from the Yale Divinity School.
Normally, I don’t go for biblical fiction, but Sarah reviewed this in the Historical Novels Review, and it looked interesting. So when I went to a spanking-new library over the weekend and saw three spanking-new copies of this book on the shelf, it seemed a good idea to read it. (Not to mention inhaling that spanking-new-book smell.)
Preliminaries out of the way, this novel is about Joanna, mentioned in the Gospel of Luke as one of Jesus’ followers and as the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza. The daughter of parents who abandoned Judaism to follow the more profitable path of ingratiating themselves with the Romans, Joanna is rich and well-connected, but has been consumptive since girlhood. When she hears of a man from Nazareth who heals the sick, she travels to his mother’s house to arrange a private meeting, intending only to get her cure and be done with the matter. Needless to say, that is not how things work out.
The difficulty in writing religious fiction, I suspect, is the constraint an author feels with dealing with holy figures. Jesus makes a number of appearances here but seldom speaks to Joanna, the narrator; the treatment of him is reverent and somewhat distant. (A different approach, I imagine, would make many readers, including this one, uncomfortable.) Mary is treated with similar respect, though in a somewhat more down-to-earth manner; she’s the mother of Christ, but also a typical mother who worries about her son. Still, to make this work as historical fiction, an ordinary, flawed human being is needed, and fortunately, Joanna fits the bill quite nicely.
This brings me to my only real complaint about this novel. I found Joanna a fascinating character, particularly in her relationships with her husband, her slaves, and the Roman officials and their wives, and I would have liked to have seen the relationships and people explored in more depth. Chuza, for instance, is given an intriguing history as a son who tried to defend his battered mother against his father, but his character remains underdeveloped. This is one novel, I think, that could have stood to be about 100 pages longer, at least if the author had spent the extra space in fleshing out the people in it.
As it is, though, the novel moves at a fast pace, and there are some compelling, moving scenes that, along with the character of Joanna, made this an enjoyable read. I’m looking forward to seeing what Rourke will produce next.