Loranger’s (The Odyssey of Art O’Hara, 2012) historical novel tells the tale of Mary, an Egyptian prostitute during the late Roman Empire who repents and becomes a Christian saint.
As a youth, Mary often dreams of a man named Charaxus, who her mother says is imaginary but whom her father describes as her guardian angel. Charaxus convinces Mary to leave home when she’s 12; she goes to Alexandria, where she’s soon working for a madam, Lady Danae. Seventeen years later, Mary is living with a rich man named Nobilius as his personal prostitute. He asks her to marry him but she declines; after the second rebuff, he commits suicide by hurling himself off the famous lighthouse at Pharos. Mary then joins a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, paying for her sea passage by providing her services to members of the crew. Onboard, she meets a man who looks like Charaxus, and they become lovers. In Jerusalem, Mary tries to enter the Great Church, which purportedly sits atop Jesus’ burial place, but some unseen force keeps her from going in. Then she hears the songs of an elderly flautist and finds that she can finally enter. She decides to devote her life to Jesus and crosses the Jordan River to live in the wilderness as a hermit. Charaxus shows up in her cave and argues against her religion, but Mary resists him. Years later, Mary meets a monk named Zosimus and tells him her story. Overall, this is a tightly written account of the life of an obscure saint, and it spins a credible yarn of what life might have been like in her time and place. Although the book contains many sexual interludes, they are rather chaste—perhaps too chaste for modern readers. Some lyrical passages hint at the beauty of the Bible, as when the flautist declares that “all mankind is grass.” But Mary’s motivations aren’t always entirely clear—especially those that led her to her ultimate conversion. She talks of doing “penance” for the “joys of sex,” but some readers may wonder whether Mary has truly changed her ways because of a deep religious revelation.
A subtly handled story of a saint’s life that offers some useful insights into both the era and the woman.