Fifty Shades of (Mormon) Gray: A Review of Moriah Jovan’s "Magdalene"

MagdaleneMy experience is limited when it comes to romance novels. I remember as a kid always seeing them on the shelves at grocery stores. Their covers were fairly standard: massive pectorals, cleavage, and yards of lush fabric and flowing hair. But they always seemed sketchy to me, like the kind of thing you weren’t supposed to read if you wanted to remain a good boy or girl. Later, I found out that there were “clean” alternatives for the Mormon market, but I never read those either. Their covers were nothing like the romance novels in the grocery store. They showed modestly dressed couples (puffy sweaters, permed hair, denim shirts, tapered jeans) who smiled and looked lovingly into the eternity of the other person’s eyes. I knew I wasn’t supposed to judge books by their covers, but those practically screamed lame.
Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene (B10 Mediaworx, 2011) is a Mormon romance novel, but you can’t tell by its cover. Stark and vaguely suggestive, it shows a massive cauldron pouring a fiery stream of liquid metal onto a flaming rose. On the one hand, the image is a nod to Hollander Steelworks, one of the corporations at the center of the novel’s intricate plot. On the other, it’s symbolic of the red-hot passion between the novel’s main characters, Cassandra St. James, an ex-prostitute turned corporate restructuring advisor, and Mitch Hollander, a benevolent working-man-turned-steel-magnate who also happens to be a recently-widowed Mormon bishop.  They are an unlikely pair. Cassandra is fiercely independent, crude, and ruthless when it comes to those who have wronged her. Mitch, however, is self-controlled, patient, and deeply committed to serving God. Reduced to these basics, their relationship sounds like little more than a sensational novelist gimmick—a ploy to snag dopey readers who fall for far-fetched pairings of grossly stereotyped characters. But Magdalene is much smarter than that.
Much smarter.
As Mormon novels go, Magdalene is in a class of its own. More complex and layered than most, it takes readers through a web of corporate and ecclesiastical power, history, and interpersonal relationships. Wisely, Jovan includes two diagrams at the beginning of the book that help sort most of this out, but even with these diagrams it’s still easy for readers to get lost in the details of Magdalene. While some might see this as a weakness in the novel—something that needs to be simplified or dumbed down in order to accomodate—I see it as one of its strengths. If nothing else, Magdalene forces readers to work, to make connections, to follow leads. It also asks them to draw upon their reserve knowledge of the New Testament and Mormon theology to identify parallels that enrich and give meaning to the narrative. As its title suggests, the novel has its Magdalene, but it also has its Christ- and Judas-figures. At times, Jovan can be heavy-handed with these connections—Bishop Hollander presides over the Bethlehem Ward of the Nazareth Stake, for example—but only to reminder readers to keep an eye out for more subtle intertextual connections.
Of course, because Magdalene is a romance novel, readers will probably pay more attention to the its sexuality than its intertextuality. Magdalene, after all, doesn’t pull any punches in that respect, and readers who prefer “clean” sweater-and-denim style Mormon romances will probably be turned off by the novel’s eroticism. Again, my experience with the romance genre is limited, so I can’t say if Magdalene is typical or not in this respect. Its epigraph comes from 1 Corinthians 7:9 (“But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn”), and there’s a lot of chaste burning throughout the first half of the novel, which Jovan allows to build (and build) (and build) to a breaking point midway through the novel. Then things get a little…uh…sexy.
Maybe even Fifty Shades of Gray sexy, but I haven’t read those books.
But Magdalene is sexy intermixed with a high-powered endgame between Mitch and Cassie, the two protagonists, and Greg Sitkaris, the novel’s unambiguous bad guy. Greg is the ex-Young Men president of Mitch’s ward, the Stake President’s best friend, and possibly the sleaziest character in all of Mormon fiction. A chronic philanderer and hypocrite, Greg vies for Mitch’s calling and schemes his way into the hearts of all but the savviest of ward members, making him a constant thorn in Mitch’s side. Thankfully, I’ve never met a Mormon like Greg, but he’s nevertheless convincing as a deeply corrupt Mormon character. He’s the kind of villain you love to hate, the perfect foil to the irreproachable Mitch, and Jovan takes great pleasure in giving readers more reasons loathe him. When he finally gets his due, they’ll cheer.
Aside from the cat-and-mouse games between Mitch, Cassandra, and Greg, the novel also surprises with keen insight into Mormon life and culture. Cassandra is a total stranger to Mormonism, and through her character Jovan explores Mormonism from the outside in. Her guides on this crash course are several Mormon characters—some devout, some fringe, some in-between—who explain the nooks and crannies of the faith without sounding like missionaries or a chapter out of Mormonism for Dummies. I think the crash course works in Magdalene because Jovan never simply throws around facts like a lifeless pamphlet or Wikipedia article. The threads of Mormonism are crucial to the fabric of the novel, and every detail, every tidbit of cultural insight, works to support its themes or develops its characters in important ways.
As I indicate above, Magdalene isn’t your typical Mormon novel. Aside from the significant sexual content, it also contains coarse language that would make even The Backslider’s Frank Windham blush. Maybe this is one of the downsides of Magdalene, but I think Jovan uses it as a tool to flesh out her characters better and set the Mormon world apart from the rest of the world. So much of the novel zeroes in on how power works, after all, that without something else to set Mormonism apart, the Church would seem like any other corporate entity. Mitch’s commitment to the gospel and its standards shows how the essence of the Mormon way of life strives to rise above the pettiness of power plays and corporate machinations. Magdalene, to be sure, shows the systems has its flaws, but it also bears a strong testimony (if I can use that phrase) in the discerning element of the Spirit that is the Church’s greatest defense against corruption.
Magdalene isn’t for every reader, but it deserves the praise it has received. What I like best about the novel, and where I think it shines, is its willingness to push past the rote answers we sometimes give in gospel discussions and explore the notorious gray areas of Mormon teaching and culture. This is particular true in its treatment of morality, for while this novel is mostly about power—power is like crack for these characters—it’s more specifically about the shady intersections of power and morality. To fully grasp what Magdalene has to say about this intersection, readers have to train themselves to think like Mitch, the Mormon bishop:

“I can’t afford to think in black and white [….] Part of my job is to judge people worthy or not worthy and you know, there’s a whole world of mitigating circumstances in every person’s life to make the idea of worth, well, worthless [….] We’re here to do the best we can with what we’re given, to learn. Hopefully we learn some compassion and service. I try to weigh a person’s circumstance with their progress because there is no such thing as perfect. But there’s a time you turn the other cheek and there’s a time when you have to pick up a bullwhip and clean the moneychangers out of the temple. The hard part is knowing when to do which.” (Kindle Locations 6924-6930).

In the Book of Mormon, Nephi learns that some situations compel us to act according to different moral paradigms. Joseph Smith himself taught as much when he wrote that “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another.” For the Prophet, this unconventional approach to morality was nevertheless “the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted” as it requires those who wish to make righteous judgments use “revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed” in order to make the right call.  Magdalene, in many ways, offers exercises in this kind of thinking—case studies that ask readers to think about a “whole world of mitigating circumstances” before they reach for the stone of judgment. Reading Magdalene may therefore be as much a revelatory experience as it is an intellectual or aesthetic one. It not only offers readers insight into Mormon faith, but it also provides them ample opportunity to discern their way through the murky gray areas of mortal life.

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