A down-to-earth Virgin Mary fields offers from Joseph and Pontius Pilate.
Romanian-born novelist/memoirist Popescu (Footprints in Time, 2008, etc.) grafts the story of adolescent Mary onto the dilemma of Eve, who was, he intimates, set up by the Creator to be both the repository of humanity’s hopes and the mother of all scapegoats. When Mary’s not puzzling out sexual politics, she’s the de facto leader of her clan, which has been exiled from Nazareth by King Herod the Great. We first see her through the eyes of handsome young Roman Apella (aka Pontius Pilatus). The last scion of a family executed by Augustus Caesar, he has been appointed through a convoluted chain of happenstance to be Augustus’ spy in Israel. Although he’s pledged to marry Caesar’s niece, Apella is immediately smitten with 17-year-old Mary, who saved her tribe from certain death in the desert by discovering a well, and offers her the status of a favored bondwoman in his household. Mary, though attracted to Apella, loves Joseph, a woodcarver apprenticed to her father, who disappeared during the Jewish gang wars (fomented by Herod) that drove her clan out of Nazareth. As the Nazarenes, assured by Apella of Herod’s forgiveness, prepare to return home, Mary learns that Joseph, who has made a fortune sculpting statues, is now betrothed to the daughters of the competing gang leaders and is requesting Mary’s hand as third wife. Stung, but not considering bondwoman-ship an acceptable alternative, Mary climbs Mount Barak to consult the Creator himself. He tells her, in effect, that all she has to do is wait for the men to make their usual hash of things. Sure enough, the gang leaders perish or flee, removing their daughters as competition. Popescu ingeniously skirts the thorny question of the virgin birth: Mary seems to have gotten pregnant the old-fashioned way. Or has she?
Chaotically plotted, but brings this turbulent age to vibrant life with sympathetic characters, both minor and major.