I never thought this day would come. Ladies and gentlemen, I have found a book that rivals The Art Thief for the title of "Worst Book I Have Ever Read (and Finished)." What begins as innocuous conspiracy-orientated historical fiction ends up becoming a delusional and boring dissertation on the "truth" behind Mary Magdalene.
Conspiracy theories attract us because they appeal to our innate need for order and relationships; they draw connections among disparate elements of society and history. It's no wonder, then, that the historical fiction market is flooded with novels expounding every possible permutation of every possible conspiracy theory. Being a popular religion, Christianity draws more than its fair share of those theories. And nothing is more popular than an account of what "really" happened two thousand years ago at the dawn of Christianity.
The Expected One actually isn't that bad at first. Maureen Paschal begins experiencing visions of Mary Magdalene and investigates them with her journalistic abilities. Soon she's in the middle of one of the oldest conspiracies, the focal point of a conflict between two rival secret societies, the heir to Mary Magdalene. It all sounds intriguing, which is part of the reason the book is so disappointing. It sets the bar high and then fails to meet expectations.
As with many conspiracy novels, The Expected One falls victim to the temptation to make every character a part of the conspiracy. In fact, I don't think we meet one "innocent" person in this entire book; even Maureen's best friend and closest confidante are both "in the know" before Maureen herself becomes involved! When everyone has an angle, it's hard for the protagonist to assert herself. As a character and a heroine, Maureen suffers as a result--she's used by the various parties involved in this conspiracy. I never felt like Maureen had any input or any control over what was happening.
Once she uncovers Mary Magdalene's lost gospel, McGowan begins including chapters told from the perspective of Magdalene, specifically regarding her marriage to John the Baptist and then Christ's crucifixion. At least The Betrayal established the dual time period setting from the beginning. While I realize there's a reason for the sudden new narrator in the narrative itself, it is still a bit jarring.
Beyond the revelation of Magdalene's gospel, however, there's very little in The Expected One. The best thing I can say about it is that Maureen definitely changed, so she's dynamic; I'll give McGowan that. Otherwise, nothing in the modern day world seems to change with the discovery of Mary Magdalene's own perspective on Christ. While I realize that this is just "book one" of what will obviously be a series (next up: finding the gospel of Jesus himself!), the lack of any meaningful consequences in this book left me unfulfilled.
I finished the book nonetheless and then, as always, read the author's afterword. This usually consists of notes regarding the historicity of the events in the book--what's real and what isn't. Warning sirens went off when I read this:
I began to experience a series of haunting, recurring dreams that centered on the events and characters of the Passion. Unexplainable occurrences, like those that Maureen experiences.... I would come to understand that most of my life had been lived in preparation for this specific journey of discovery.... The ultimate shock came with the revelation that my own birth date was the subject of a prophecy related to Mary Magdalene and her descendants ... many of my protagonist's adventures and virtually all of her supernatural encounters are based in my own life experiences.
That's right: this novel is semi-autobiographical, which makes Maureen a Canon Mary Sue. It gets worse:
I must be circumspect about the primary source of the new information presented here for reasons of security, but I will say this: The content of the gospel of Mary Magdalene as I interpret it here is taken from previously undisclosed source material. It has never been released to the public before.
In my need to protect the sacred nature of this information and those who hold it, I had no choice but to write this, and the subsequent books in this series, as fiction.
Reading this just made me shudder, because it feels so self-righteous and ... earnest. I'd much rather have an author just tell me, "Well, most of this is made up," or, "This is historically accurate, according to these non-mainstream sources…" But no, McGowan feels the need to extrude the conspiracy in her book into real life, and it all gets way too meta for me….
Lest you think I'm panning this book solely because I'm leery of its author's proclamations, let me finish my review by returning to criticism of the book itself. If The Expected One were truly fascinating, if it presented McGowan's ... "experiences" in a suitably satisfying story, then I'd be OK with it. Instead, The Expected One is empty; the story, its inspiration aside, is poorly written. A good book should appeal to the reader even if he or she disagrees with its themes. The reader should be entertained by the quality of its writing and its story. When a book becomes limited to an audience of approval, there's something wrong.
I need to begin listening to my library instincts more. When I picked this book up off the New Books shelf, a little tingle warned me I should put it back. I ignored it, and look at what happened. The unfortunate drawback to my goal of being less picky about what books I read is that occasionally bad books get past my defences.