Girl Mary: A Novel
The Mary in Girl Mary__ is known by many names and revered by many people. Type “Mary” into Google and the first match is a Wikipedia entry for “Mary (mother of Jesus),” her best known role. She is a major player in the spirituality of millions, yet much of her life remains a mystery. Girl Mary, a work of fiction by Petru Popescu, takes Mary the mythical figure and makes her human while telling a captivating account of her life just before Jesus.
Popescu’s novel marries Judean history with that of Augustan Rome. It begins from the perspective of a young Roman who calls himself Apella, but later reveals his real name is Pontius Pilate—the man who would ultimately sentence Jesus to his crucifixion. He agrees to work as a spy for Augustus Caesar, who wants to declare himself God, by visiting a tribe of Jews from which Caesar has heard the son of God will come. Pilate is told to find a miracle and bring it back to Caesar so the Roman people can be convinced that it came from their emperor.
Mary, of course, belongs to the tribe Pilate visits whose people were banished from their home, Nazareth, by their king. Part of Pilate’s plan is to gain the tribe members’ trust by persuading the king to let them back into Nazareth. Pilate unintentionally falls for Mary throughout this process, but her heart belongs to Joseph, a carpenter she met when she lived in Nazareth. The novel follows Mary’s physical journey back home and her emotional journey of being in love.
Girl Mary brings Mary, Pilate, and Joseph to life in a way that religious texts don’t allow. The story is told from each of their perspectives, though Mary is the most developed character. Much of her development comes from the many conversations she has with God during her journeys. It’s clear she isn’t afraid to question God’s motives, especially when it comes to his creation of women and their suffering at the hands of men.
Popescu’s Mary is quite a bit less reserved than her biblical image. When Joseph asks her to marry him, she declines knowing she would be his third wife (he is set to marry two others before her). It’s clear that she values herself, and Joseph, too much to be his third. In a time when women are used as bartering chips, she acts her own negotiator and haggles Joseph into making her his first wife. Throughout the book, she proves that a woman can be virtuous without having to be submissive to those around her.
In Christianity, Mary is often used as symbol of what all women should aspire to be: pure and virtuous. However, Mary’s level of purity is an unattainable standard. In religious texts, she remains a virgin despite being pregnant with Jesus because he was conceived by a miracle of God. Popescu’s Mary is not a virgin. She has sex with Joseph, which leads God to plant the seed of his son into her womb. It’s a very small part of the book, but indicative of the story Popescu has created. Even though his novel is fiction, its detail and emotion make it feel more realistic than the texts—believed to be based on historical facts—from which the story originally came.
Popescu’s Mary is not only relatable, but the purity and virtue she exemplifies is attainable. He didn’t change her or her story much, but he made them both more rounded and a joy to read.