1. What are you currently reading?
According to my Kindle, I’m 5% of the way through reading How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, and it’s a perfect read for anyone who spends too much online or who is down on themselves for not “maximizing” their personal or professional productivity during an unprecedented global pandemic. (I am a member of both of these groups.) But I just finished Pope Joan (2009, Ballantine) by Donna Woolfolk Cross, and I cannot stop thinking about it.
2. How far along in the book are you?
I just finished it two days ago. The best part of working from home was getting to read without interruption right until the last second before I had to log on at 9:30 in the morning, and then being able to immediately jump back into the book the nanosecond my lunch break started. I started Pope Joan on the heels of hate-reading three books from a very bad YA series. Those books had gotten me into the habit of reading faster–-both because of how they were written, but also so I could power my way to the few morsels of conflict these books actually had. But Pope Joan forced me to slow down and actually take my time to appreciate the world-building and the circumstances this woman found herself in. It’s not a very fast read despite being only about 400 pages, but it doesn’t drag. Just when you start to think you know what’s going to happen next, you get a jarring twist. There were multiple times when I’d tell myself to just read a few pages to wind down before bed, and then I would find myself reading waaaaay longer than I intended too because DRAMA was HAPPENING.
3. What is it about?
Pope Joan centers on the life of the historical (?) figure of Pope Joan (possibly the true Pope John VIII) who is believed to have reigned briefly for two years in the 850s. The novel imagines Joan as being the daughter of a Saxon woman and an English canon who migrated to (what is now) Germany to colonize and convert the Norse people to Catholicism. Joan becomes captivated by learning to read and fascinated with studying the Bible, entirely against her abusive father’s wishes. She runs away from home at an early age and begins studying under a local Bishop, while living with a kindly lord named Gerold, who she eventually falls in love with. Circumstances eventually force her to disguise herself as a man named John Anglicus and join an order of monks in order to survive and continue her scholarship.
Her passion for learning and advanced knowledge of the medical sciences eventually bring her to Rome, where she immediately befriends the current Pope–while also making deadly enemies within his inner circle. Joan eventually finds herself named Pope, but also forced to choose between true love and a calling beyond her wildest imagining.
4. What drew you to this book?
I’d had this book recommended to me a few times over the years, and it would often appear in “Best of Historical Fiction” lists. As someone living in New York in the age of COVID-19, reading has become my favorite activity to feel like I’m somewhere other than my little two-room apartment. I was excited to read something set in a very different time and place. Also, I’m a huge sucker for historical dramas centered on little-known or legendary female historical figures. I love reading stories about women in the past–about how real or imagined women managed to find agency, joy, love, and a greater sense of purpose than the circumstances they are born into would normally allow. I especially enjoy narratives that take you from a character’s birth to their death (or, if not death, very late in life) where you really feel like you know this person intimately and can watch them grow and transform from the events in their life. Pope Joan gave me the best of all of these.
5. Who would you recommend this book to?
I’m an Aquarius, so I love a good conspiracy theory and recommend it heartily to anyone who loves historical controversies. If you’re interested in women’s history, the Middle Ages, Catholic history, or any combination thereof, this book is for you. If you enjoy Anya Seton or Philippa Gregory’s books, if you want a world you can immersive yourself into, and a protagonist you can earnestly root for, Pope Joan is absolutely for you.