Friday, September 28, 2018

Hidden Truths

Leslie Schweitzer Miller’s debut novel, Discovery—the subject of my latest podcast interview—can be characterized as a group of connected mysteries wrapped in a love story. It starts in 1885, with the arrival of Abbé François Bérenger Saunière in the small town of Rennes-le-Château, high in the French Alps. As Schweitzer Miller explains in the interview, this priest, a historical character, left a mystery behind him: how he managed to amass a huge fortune while serving a poor parish first assigned to him as a kind of punishment post. And although we don’t know historically whether any connection existed between Bérenger Saunière and the unsolved murder of his close friend Father Antoine Gélis (also a historical character) in 1897, no novelist could resist imagining such a connection.

Deeper links develop between the story of the two priests—the wealth of one and the brutal death inflicted on the other—and a question that has roiled the establishment of biblical scholars for some time: was Jesus of Nazareth married?

Discovery is not the first novel to tackle this last question. Most notably, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code included it as part of the rationale for that novel’s complex and overlapping set of puzzles. But as one might expect from a practicing psychiatrist, Schweitzer Miller focuses her novel less on the solution to the mysteries per se and more on the human connections between her characters and the impact of the discoveries on their beliefs about the world and their feelings for one another.

In particular, she traces the love that develops between her modern-day heroine, Giselle Gélis, and the archaeologist David Rettig as they travel together across southern France in pursuit of a solution to the double mystery of Rennes-le-Château. Their journey forces them to confront that deeper biblical question, and their differing responses to what they find in turn threaten their relationship—even more than the fellow scholar determined to get in their way.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

When Giselle Gélis runs into David Rettig at a biblical studies conference, she’s not expecting a life-changing experience. On the contrary, the thought foremost in her mind is escaping the creepy colleague who seems oblivious to hints of dislike and even outright putdowns. But Giselle and David hit it off, despite their differences of personality and the reality that any relationship between them can only be long-distance: she lives in France while he’s based in Israel.

In an attempt to spend time together, Giselle and David agree to undertake a journey across southern France, from just below Marseille to Toulouse. It’s supposed to be a vacation, casually devoted to learning more about each other while unraveling a mystery associated with Giselle’s uncle, murdered late in the nineteenth century in a crime that was never solved, between stops at luxury hotels and meals at fabulous restaurants. Instead, Giselle and David stumble over a discovery that challenges  doctrine fundamental to the Christian religion, and with it her faith and their future as a couple.

Discovery (Notramour Press, 2018) skips back and forth between Giselle and David’s present and her uncle’s past, with at least one foray even deeper into time as the underlying mystery is gradually revealed. Leslie Schweitzer Miller  juggles these multiple realities with aplomb, bringing to life not only the breathtaking scenery of the mountains around Rennes-le-Château (pictured on the cover above), where the central action takes place, but the contrasting time periods and the characters who populate them.

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