I have been fascinated by the mysteries of Rennes-le-Chateau ever since I first heard of it, years ago, when I saw a documentary about it, so when I found this book, I had to read it. For those unfamiliar with the story, in the late 19th century, Berenger Sauniere, the priest of a poor French village, presiding over a leaky-roofed, ramshackle church, suddenly came into immense wealth, the source of which remains a mystery today, and began renovating and decorating his church in a rather esoteric manner that still raises eyebrows today. Some believe Sauniere discovered a secret that would have turned religion as the world knew it upside down and blackmailed the Catholic Church to keep it a secret, but went on to encrypt clues about it in the decoration of his church. Mary Magdalene (whose image graces the altar, see picture above) plays a prominent role in all these theories.
But this is a more pesonal novel, it is told from the viewpoint of Sauniere's housekeeper and mistress Marie Denarnaud. It is the story of personal conflict and warring desires, the pull between passion and chastity in a loving relationship, and Marie's own struggle to keep her faith when confronted with the Church's violent past when she learns about the massacres of the Cathars and Knights Templars. It is also the story of Sauniere's struggles with his priestly vows, chastity and his need and greed for wealth, which he splurges on grandiose building projects and luxuries for himself and Marie, causing the poor provincial villagers to dub her "The Priest's Madonna," because he gives Marie the adoration he should have, as a priest, given to the Virgin Mary.
Marie, like the others, is perplexed by the source of Sauniere's wealth, never quite satisfied with the explanations he gives, and troubled by his secretive ways and forays into grave-robbing, which she joins in, though her reasons are different from his. She is intrigued by the mystery, and her curiosity is fueled by some mysterious discoveries, and an Austrian Archduke who takes an unusual interest in the church at Rennes-le-Chatueau and donates money to pay for renovations with the provision that Sauniere inform him of any interesting finds, and by the tales and legends the Mayor's wife, herself an intriguing figure, tells about the Merovingian Kings and a family that may have been descended from Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, and a lost or concealed book of visions kept by a madwoman.
For much of the book, their relationship remains chaste, and Marie tries to persuade herself she is happy with this, while Sauniere battles the temptation, but after they give in and consummate their relationship it is like a dam burst ans Sauniere loses all restraint and Rennes-le-Chateau grows more and more fantastic, he even builds a tower the Tour Magdala to house Marie's library and a fine villa, the Villa Bethania, with a well-stocked wine cellar, and there are jewels and Paris gowns for Marie. In the end, his decadence will be the ruin of him.
The story of Marie and Sauniere is interwoven with that of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ, here called Miryam of Magdala and Yeshua of Natzaret. This relationship is portrayed in a manner that is somewhat vague, perhaps intentionally so, that leaves lingering questions, for example-- Skip to next paragraph if you don't like spoilers! --after the Crucifixion Miryam realizes she is pregnant, but it is not made clear if this was the result of a physical sexual act or Immaculate Conception.
Ms. Hassinger does a fine job depicting the frustrations and complexities of the relationship between the priest and his mistress/housekeeper. Although, in my opinion, the Biblical chapters are the weaker part of the book, it is nonetheless an interesting and thought-provoking read, and if you are not already intrigued by the mysteries of Rennes-le-Chateau this novel just might inspire you to delve deeper and even read the more complex non-fiction book that inspired Ms. Hassinger to write it, Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln.