The Priest's Madonna, like The Da Vinci Code, takes its story from the controversial book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, imagining that there were descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene who settled in France. Whether or not there is any truth to this theory, it makes interesting fodder for novels. Hassinger's take on this theory focuses on two storylines - that of the love between Mary (Miryam) and Jesus (Yeshua), and the passionate affair between Marie Dénarnaud and the village priest, Bérenger Saunière - all of whom are mentioned in Holy Blood, Holy Grail. She primarily focuses on the story between Marie and Bérenger, while Mary Magdalene takes a smaller role in her story at the end of each chapter. It should be noted that while the novel is based on the lives of real people, Hassinger took excessive liberties with their stories. Her attention to detail and the obvious research she did for the novel are admirable.
In late 19th-century France, Marie first meets Bérenger, a friend of her mother's, at a pilgrimage to St. Mary Magdalene's grotto outside Marseilles. Years later, when Marie is sixteen, she meets Bérenger again when he comes to her village of Rennes-le-Chateau as the new priest. He temporarily lives with her family while the presbytery is under renovation, and Marie finds herself instantly attracted to him. She soon becomes indispensable to him as both a servant and confidante. Emotional intimacy develops between them, and as Marie's feelings for the priest deepen, she begins to experience a crisis of faith.
Meanwhile, a mysterious Austrian aristocrat makes a generous donation for the reconstruction of the church. The renovations begin to reveal astonishing secrets that may corroborate a local legend that an ancestor of Jesus and Mary Magdalene once lived in the village. The only connection to this legend is a local woman, an eccentric Jew who is married to the mayor. As Marie befriends her and discovers more about the sacred bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, she must keep what she knows secret from Bérenger, as it is his wish to destroy anything having to do with the legend. The secret threatens to tear them apart and destroy their faith as they know it.
While this is the main plotline of the novel, Hassinger also retells the story of Jesus from Mary (Miryam) Magdalene's point of view as she seeks out Jesus to heal her from her mental illness, and then follows him on his travels. She becomes his beloved, his wife, and Hassinger tells of Jesus's ministry, triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and his death and resurrection, all through Mary's eyes. But what happens to Mary after Jesus's death is what connects her story to Marie and Bérenger's story nearly two thousand years later.
Hassinger takes an interesting theory and combines it with fact and fiction to make a truly engaging tale that is thought-provoking and intelligent. Through her conflicted protagonists, Hassinger shows the struggle between the earthly and the divine, the sins of the flesh and the purity of the spirit. While the context of this novel is historical, the issues addressed within it are timeless. Marie's and Mary's struggles for their faith, and ultimately for their redemption, add pathos to their tales. Suspenseful and passionate, The Priest's Madonna will linger in your mind long after you read it.