Book Review: Magdalene by Moriah Jovan

Posted by on May 28, 2011 in book review | 23 comments

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.

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23 Comments

  1. I am NOT Mormon but I read(and write) Romance and this story blew me away. It not only taught me about what is, to me, another religious culture, but it gave me a heart warming story of love and sacrifice. I agree 100% BUY THIS BOOK!

    • Inez, thanks for weighing in. I was really amazed by the book’s treatment of Mormonism, so that’s what I focused my review on here. That said, I could not agree more that this book is an amazing story of love and sacrifice.

  2. Also not a Mormon (with no desire to change that). But MoJo’s novels (I’ve read The Proviso, Stay, and Magdelene) have given me an appreciation for the culture and its members. Plus she’s just a damn good writer.

    Great review. You absolutely do the novel justice.

  3. Amy,
    Great review. I’ve been looking for a book about Mormons that is not too Mormony and this may be it. Is Amazon the best place to buy it?

    Also, can you explain to me what Randian is?

    • Randian as in Ayn Rand. Rand’s characters are well known to be almost god-like. And her novels embody her objectivist philosophy in which the individual reigns supreme. Jovan’s characters definitely have some Randian characteristics, but they’re much more human and likable than Rand’s characters.

      I bought the book in a digital format at Barnes & Noble, since I’m a member there and get a discount. You can definitely get it at Amazon, too. This is definitely a great choice for a book that is about Mormons without being too Mormony.

    • Jessawhy,

      the best place to buy is directly from the author at http://b10mediaworx.com/b10mwx/bookstore/moriah-jovan/magdalene-book-3/

      • I wish I’d known there was a way to buy directly from the author. I’d have done so if I did. Next time.

    • Hi, Jessawhy.

      The best place to buy it would be at http://b10mediaworx.com/b10mwx/bookstore/moriah-jovan/magdalene-book-3/

      That’s my publishing company. If you’re more comfortable buying it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble in either paper or electrons, they’re there, too. Or you can have your bookstore or library order it for you. (If they tell you they can’t get it, they’re lying.)

  4. You know, I focused this review on the Mormon aspect of the book. And now I’m realizing I didn’t say something important: Jovan really knows how to write a relationship. As with most romances, there are some moments that are unrealistically fantasy; that said, most of Mitch and Cassie’s relationship feels very real (though at a wealth level not available to most of us). Their attraction to each other is palpable, but the relationship is more than just attraction and emotion. It’s also fun and a little giddy, just like falling in love feels like in real life.

    Trust me, non-romance readers–this is a very difficult thing to write well.

  5. WOW! As someone who feels somewhat on top of the world of romance novels, I confess that I had no idea that Mormon romance novels like this existed! I am so going to buy this book. I can’t wait to see how the author portrays Mormons and Mormonism, in all their complexity.

    I wonder what kind of feedback Mariah Jovan is getting for writing this. I know plenty of Mormon women that read explicitly erotic romance novels. I don’t know of any who write them…

    • Caroline, thanks!

      My established reader base is about three-quarters romance readers and one-quarter non-romance readers, most non-members. And a lot of those are not Americans. Of the members who’ve read my books and liked them, 85% of those are men, and for some reason, my books (particularly The Proviso) seem to have touched some raw chord with them.

      This is the third book in a series, so they already knew they could trust me. It’s getting reviewed pretty well for the entire month it’s been out. I released it on Easter Sunday. ;)

      I’m sad to say that I far more trusted non-members to “get” the characters’ Mormon-ness and philosophical leanings more than I trusted members to be able to get past the first f-bomb. My trust (and mistrust) has not been misplaced. My target audience was always romance readers; never church members.

      Thus, I am shocked (pleasantly!) that this book seems to be sort of gaining a little traction here. I don’t know. The male member feedback has given me reason to think there’s a real (in some cases, I’d say desperate) need for what I write. It didn’t occur to me there may be a female need, too.

      I know plenty of Mormon women that read explicitly erotic romance novels. I don’t know of any who write them…

      Brenda Novak
      Christine Feehan
      RaeAnne Thayne

      Carla Kelly (not so explicit, so I’m told, and whatever scenes that are were written under editorial duress)

      If there are others, I can’t think of them off the top of my head.

      Also, please forgive me for all the pings. I was so excited, I dropped the link everywhere not knowing they’d all show up as comments. Oops.

      And Amelia, THANK YOU so much. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.

      • Don’t worry about the pings, Moriah. I’d like to get the word out about how great your book is, so more readers of the review is a good thing in my mind. And you shouldn’t thank me–you’re the one who wrote such a great book! :)

        I find it interesting that such a large percentage of your receptive Mormon readers are men. I’m going to have to think about that a little bit more. I have my theories about what makes the heroes in romance novels work, what makes them appealing (which is one of the things I want to develop my paper for Sunstone this summer around). I’m curious how much your male Mormon readers’ reactions have to do with identifying with the male characters vs. being attracted to the female characters. Do you have comments from male readers you wouldn’t mind emailing me?

  6. (screen crashed and ate my long reply!)

    Moriah! I just read Magdalene this week along with my husband and several friends. I quite enjoyed it and prioritized my evenings to read it quickly. This was my first romance novel, since I read almost exclusively non-fiction and will probably keep it that way :)

    • Oh, thank you so much! I’m so stunned (in a good way!).

  7. Amelia, I can’t share much (about the men) because the situations are too specific not to be recognizable, but I will say this as regards to the The Proviso: Bryce’s situation and issues hit way too close to home, especially his sexuality and having no way to express that for so long. (Giselle is VERY popular amongst the male readers.) I thought I was building Bryce’s backstory out of wholecloth, but apparently not.

    It made me wonder how many faithful priesthood holders live in some version of that private hell with their eternal spouses. Of course, I’m sure there are just as many women in the same position, but who probably think they’re bad for wanting something they are entitled to by right of marriage. Lopsided libido levels, guilt, shame, an inability to communicate about sex–and I’m just talking about couples who truly love each other!

    Now, I have had the privilege of knowing many sisters who will discuss sex and their enjoyment of it, and a couple who admitted they liked to get rough and nasty. So I think I’ve been spoiled in that respect. I’ve heard sisters make off-color asides at church that made everybody cackle. I’ve been exposed to sisters who are really earthy. Great examples of sisterhood. (Obviously, I’m not going to hear that from the men.) The longer I hang out in the bloggernacle, though, the more I’ve come to believe this is just midwestern pragmatism.

  8. .

    If I hadn’t already read it I would be buying it right now.

  9. Bought and read it last night on this review. Was NOT disappointed. Best romance novel I’ve read in a long time. Will definitely be trying her other stuff.

    <3 <3 <3

  10. I went out and bought this after reading this review and stayed up WAY too late reading it this weekend. Ugh. …That refers to my lack-of-sleep right now, not the book, which was COMPLETELY AWESOME. I don’t even like romances as a general rule! So thank you so much for this review!

    Mostly I had pretty much exactly the same reaction as Amelia. I’ll add that I loved how all the characters were so accepting. I wonder how common that is… my stake is very much like that, but the one I grew up in was not, and I think it has a lot to do with a) having a good balance between Mormon/non-Mormon… too many or too few tends to get very insular, in my experience; and b) having a wide variety of people — my ward has extremely rich, extremely poor, a couple physical and mental disabled, some very powerful guys, some way down on the totem pole, some very educated, some barely so… and I think that may force people to be accepting, because otherwise you wouldn’t have a ward.

    • So glad you enjoyed it, Charlene. And I loved the accepting attitudes of the Mormon characters, too.

  11. I am not a romance novel reader. I was slightly scarred as a young teen when my grandmother handed me one of hers to read. Way too scandoulous … However, this really really intrigues me. Since I’ve matured a bit since then, this sounds like a good sampling of the genre.

    • Well, this one certainly has its scandalous content. But there’s a world of difference between reading this content as a young teenager and as an adult. If you read it, Kelly Ann, I’ll be interested to see what you think.

  12. Ok, I’m totally buying this right. now!

    • yay! another convert. :) Enjoy it Emily!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Book Review: Magdalene by Moriah Jovan | Books Empire | Books Empire - [...] original post here: Book Review: Magdalene by Moriah Jovan | [...]
  2. for your intertainment and information « Missionary Position - [...] Sex, Revenge, and a Mormon Bishop: A review of Moriah Jovah’s Magdalene.  (About the Author, Read an Excerpt, Buy …
  3. This Week in Mormon Literature, June 3, 2011. | Dawning of a Brighter Day - [...] Magdalene, by Moriah Jovan. Amelia at The Exponent. Very positive. “I’m writing this review because Jovan writes a book, …
  4. Feminist Mormon Housewives » Magdalene, by Moriah Jovan - [...] Moriah Jovan has been around the ‘naccle for a while, you might have seen her insightful comments or you …
  5. 2011 Mormon Literature Year in Review, Pt. 2, Mormon-market fiction | Dawning of a Brighter Day - [...] who did not mind some spicy (marital) sex thrown into a story set in a Mormon milieu. Amelia at …
  6. More on Magdalene. | A Motley Vision - [...] vultures circling the air and, if you didn’t listen to me last time (or to fMh or EII) and don’t …
  7. Being honest with your fellow man | Moriah Jovan - [...] attention to Scott Hales’s review (he who is also a respected scholar of Mormon literature), the Exponent II review, …
  8. This Month in Mormon Literature, Early December 2014 | Dawning of a Brighter Day - […] “Moriah may now and then claim to be nothing more than a bawdy romance novelist, but those of us …

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