Clif Hostetler's Reviews > The Difficult Saint

The Difficult Saint by Sharan Newman
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Jul 13, 09

bookshelves: historical-fiction
Read in July, 2009

This review has been edited to include the following message from the author. I emailed her asking which character in the novel was the "Difficult Saint." Here is her reply:
"Dear Curious; The title was taken from my friend Brian McGuire's biography of Bernard of Clairvaux, but I meant it to be Lord Gerhardt, for being a Cathar saint, something highly heretical.
Thanks for asking, Sharan"


The following is my origianl review:
The setting for this historical novel is northeast France and northwest Germany and takes place in the mid 12th century. The politics of the time are centered around the initial organizing for the Second Crusade. Many Europeans are equipping themselves for the planned crusade, and some people resent the fact that Jewish merchants are profiting from sales of supplies to the crusaders. The fictional main characters of the story are centered around a nominally Christian family of mixed Jewish ancestry (a fact they try to keep a secret).

The historical environment described in this story is well researched by an author who is well qualified in the subject of medieval history. At a superficial level this book is a murder mystery. But for me the suspense of pending danger from anti-Jewish pogroms was more scary than the need to solve the murder mystery in order to save the falsely accused sister of the heroine. There's even a secret group of heretics (Cathars) in the story that has some appearances of being a proto-Protestant group. Of course Protestants and Anabaptists appeared hundreds of years later in the 16th Century, however this description of 12th Century society is a reminder that each age had its dissidents. So the feature of this book that I appreciated most was how it served as a window into a historical time often overlooked by writers of historical novels.

This book is fifth in a series of ten books in the Catherine LeVendeur series written by Sharan Newman. A complete list of the books in this series is listed at the end of this review.

There was an "After Word" included at the end of the book that explains which parts of the story were historical and which parts were fictional. I was suprised to learn that some of the incidents in the book that I had assumed were the writer's imagination were actually based on historical records. In particular, there is an incident of a poor washer woman saving the life of a young girl left for dead by an anti-Jewish mob that I found to be particularly dramatic, and it turns out to have been based on historical documents of that time.

Héloïse (of Abélard and Héloïse fame) and her son Astrolabius play side roles in the early part of this novel. At the time of this story Héloïse is prioress of the convent of Argenteuil, and Abélard is no longer living.

Bernard of Clairvaux is another historical character who plays a significant role in the story. Bernard was an opponent of Peter Abelard in earlier years, but in this story he is an older man speaking in support of the 2nd Crusade. Bernard's effort at silencing the fanatical French monk named Rudolphe is a true historical happening included within this novel.

The following comment is not directly related to this book, but while I'm on the subject of Bernard of Clairvaux I thought I would add this bit of trivia. He is the author of the poem often translated in English hymnals as "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded." Also, Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy" places him as the last guide for Dante, as he travels through the Empyrean (Paradiso, cantos XXXI-XXXIII). Dante's choice appears to be based on Bernard's contemplative mysticism, his devotion to Mary, and his reputation for eloquence.

List of books in the Catherine LeVendeur series:
1. Death Comes As Epiphany
2. The Devil's Door
3. The Wandering Arm
4. Strong As Death
5. Cursed in the Blood
6. The Difficult Saint
7. To Wear The White Cloak
8. Heresy: A Catherine LeVendeur Mystery
9. The Outcast Dove
10. The Witch in the Well



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