Review: Pope Joan

Pope Joan
Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book #35 for 2016
OFB Summer Reading Bingo Square: A book recommended by your barista
Read Harder Tasks:
– Read a book about religion (fiction or nonfiction).
– Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie. Debate which is better.

This book was not quite what I was expecting. I think I expected a weightier, more academic story. Not that this was light fluff. Despite having studied a fair amount of medieval civ at Drury back in the day, I found myself looking up a lot of vocabulary and history while reading this book. But it read a bit like a Middle Ages Downton Abbey, which itself is just a gussied-up soap opera. And for all the research that obviously went into bringing Joan’s story, however fictional, to life, the fact that Cross had no qualms about tinkering with the timeline in some spots makes me feel that she was not that dedicated to presenting a story that really could have happened.

But I suppose she wasn’t. She openly acknowledges that Pope Joan’s existence will probably remain a questioned legend, even if she did really exist. And really, there is no good reason for such a lack of commitment to Pope Joan’s reality to bother me. It is disturbing to think of the Church expunging her thus, of course, but being disturbed by the Church is nothing new for me.

All in all, I really liked this book and its highly detailed look at life in 9th-century Europe. I have only one major gripe: the faire scene with the fortune-teller. The predictions and the woman’s mysterious disappearance were the pinnacle of cliché, and this book did not deserve it. I’m glad that this was not included in the movie version.

I liked the movie version okay, but as with any film treatment of a novel of any complexity, there was a lot missing. If the book felt like a soap opera, the movie felt like musical theatre. Not bad, certainly, but focused more on hitting the highlights than on exploring any depths to the story. As much as I like David Wenham and Iain Glen, I’m not sure I would recommend the movie to anybody who has not already read the book.

And I would exercise some care in recommending the book. I think it would appeal to many with an interest in historical fiction or womens’ religious issues, but their enjoyment of the book would depend a lot on what they expect to get out of it and how invested they are in that expectation.

View all my reviews

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s