Book Review: Magdalene by Moriah Jovan
Power, prostitution, sex, revenge, and . . . a Mormon bishop? I was intrigued. How could a romance, complete with explicit sex, involve a Mormon bishop as its hero? I confess that was the only reason I picked up Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene after her editor named it “the Mormon book of the year” on an internet forum. I am a romance reader–romance as in bodice-ripping, explicit-sex-containing, titillating romance, not just chick lit. I know the tropes and themes of romance novels well. And I just could not imagine how this genre could lend itself to telling the story of a Mormon bishop without violating the truths about what it means to be not only an active Mormon, but a bishop. So I picked up the book to find out how Jovan, a practicing Mormon herself, accomplished that feat.
I was quickly absorbed by the story of Mitch Hollander (the Mormon bishop, and steel magnate, recently widowed after spending 15 years nursing an ailing wife who had spent the last several years of her life in a comatose state) and Cassie St. James (an ex-prostitute–very high end–who restructures businesses and has learned to use trauma and trial to gain strength and power). Mitch has a company that needs restructuring. Enter Cassie (or Cassandra) to do that restructuring. They date–chastely. They get married–to have hot sex (at least that’s Cassandra’s given reason; Mitch is in love), with the understanding that they’ll give it a year to see if it works. Together they take down a sociopath ward member out to wield influence in any way he can in the ward, manipulate and use his wife and daughter to his ends, enrich himself by way of embezzlement and fraud, and destroy Mitch, who the sociopath thinks has taken everything from him. And, of course, they fall madly in love and stay married beyond their one-year commitment (indefinitely happy, presumably, since this is a romance we’re talking about).
The story is thoroughly entertaining. But that’s not why I’m writing this review. I read thoroughly entertaining romance novels regularly and have yet to write a single review of one of them. I’m writing this review because Jovan writes a book, complete with explicit sex and four-letter words, that better captures Mormonism and its culture than any other book I have read. Ever. And I have read a lot of books, including quite a bit of Mormon fiction.
A little background about me and the church before I go on: since Proposition 8 and the spiritual battery I experienced then at the hands of the church and its members (both those I know well and random acquaintances), I have not been too enamored with the church. I have sometimes attended and sometimes not. When I attend, it’s because Mormon doctrine still speaks to me and because I have friends there–a community. But I have not wanted to be a part of Mormon culture for a long time now. For the first time in years, I wanted to be a part of Mormon culture and worship. And it was Jovan’s book with its representation of Mitch’s troubled ward that made me feel that way.
The very best part about Jovan’s representation of Mormonism is that it’s unapologetic, as are her Mormon characters. She doesn’t attempt to explain Mormonism, she just puts it out there, showing readers what it looks like. Some explanation does happen, but it happens naturally as Cassie asks friends and acquaintances questions in order to understand the new world she’s thrown into by her relationship with Mitch. Mitch, the Mormon bishop dating an ex-prostitute (which he discovers 45 minutes into their first date), knows himself, what he believes, what he needs, and does not apologize for it. He also feels no need to change Cassie into something she is not–he’s attracted to her and then in love with her for who she is, not for who she might become, and he’s confident enough in his own identity not to need to make her Mormon in order to be with her. As a Mormon who has felt that way and been confused by other Mormons’ insistence that I would want my non-Mormon significant others to become Mormon, I appreciated this.
And then there’s the ward dynamics: a young family whose financial struggles are mitigated by the random kindness of a stranger and the selflessness of their bishop; an unhappily married woman convinced that if she could just be married to the right man she’d be happy–and who makes trouble, and snide comments, but who is protected by the very people frustrated by her; a teenage boy who doesn’t really believe what the church teaches, but has internalized the importance of not having sex just to have sex; a smart, prickly, outspoken woman who refuses to conform but instead speaks her common sense, which has other women turning to her for confirmation of their own instincts; a priesthood leader who loves and serves his ward members, but who also struggles to control his anger and his sex drive. This is a very real ward. I loved reading such an honest picture of Mormonism, one that does not hide warts but which also makes the community and love clear.
The very best Mormon scene, for me, was when Cassie’s new friend in the ward calls her, sending her on her “first duty as bishop’s wife”: to visit a young woman in the hospital after a neurosurgery that has left her blind. Cassie goes, thinking she’ll read to the woman or chat, and quickly discovers that the ability to listen sympathetically she developed as a high end prostitute serves her just as well in her role as a bishop’s wife. After Cassie spends hours listening to this young woman’s fears and emotions, Mitch and one of his counselors arrive to give the woman a blessing. As I read that scene, I saw the best of myself, my people, my culture, my beliefs more beautifully and honestly represented than I have anywhere else. My eyes filled with tears at how beautiful the best of Mormonism is: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). And for the first time in years I wanted to be a part of this church again.
Magdalene is much more than a representation of the good and beautiful about Mormonism and its people. In its Mormonism there are abuses of trust and allowing oneself to be deceived by appearances rather than learning to trust; there’s misapplication of church discipline; there’s emotional and psychological abuse. These dark realities create the balance necessary for the portrait to be honest. And, of course, the book is much more than just Mormonism. It’s an allegorical examination of the atonement. It’s a story of vendetta and justice. It’s a celebration of strong people who shape their worlds. And it’s a very, very sexy read.
The book is not perfect. Its philosophy is a little Randian for my taste. Occasionally its narrative and dialogue get bogged down a little in philosophizing. It gets into a little too much detail about the business machinations that bring Mitch and Cassie together and help them take down the ward sociopath. But for all their Randian super-humanness, the characters are also real. They’re allowed flaws, even sexual flaws (a little problem with premature ejaculation after 18 years of celibacy). As much as some of them subscribe to objectivist philosophy, they also recognize the harsh realities of their world and reach out to help others in kindness and compassion. And some of the characters have no patience for Rand’s objectivism. I love the honesty with which the book looks at prostitution–a deeply problematic exchange that can certainly do damage, but one which is at least more honest, because transparent, than the kinds of prostitution so many people engage in without ever acknowledging as much (e.g., marrying someone for what they can do for you, rather than as a means of building communion and a life together).
I loved this book for a lot of reasons. Read it. Enjoy it. Recognize and celebrate a very real portrayal of Mormonism in all of its complexity.
In case you haven’t gotten it yet, this book contains explicit sex and language, and presents ideas that will trouble many mainstream Mormon believers. I do not think any of this content is gratuitous, since it all is a natural aspect of this narrative. I’m not going to defend this kind of content; I’m not going to excuse it; I don’t believe it needs to be either defended or excused. I’m just saying it’s a reality in this book. If it’s one you can’t deal with, consider yourself forewarned.