"The Devil's Madonna" by Sharon Potts: A Book Review
Mistaken History? Or Just a Mistake?
The juicy parts of history’s famous stories often get snuffed out by vocabulary words, event names, and testable dates, eventually making the inner workings of the minds behind the madness or miracle seem that they no longer are a piece of the puzzle. In The Devil’s Madonna, mystery/thriller writer Sharon Potts asks her readers to reassess what they learned in school about 1930s Berlin. She tells the story of the beautiful and pregnant Kali Miller and troubled, yet determined, Javier Guzman, two people living in present-day Miami Beach whose lives are inextricably connected even though they have never met.
The story opens with a mystery inside the mystery. Kali’s doting childhood friend and neighbor, Neil, saves Kali’s grandmother, Lillian, from a dramatic fire at her home which is caused by Jewish prayer candles lit by Lillian herself. The strange thing is that Lillian, as far as Kali knows, is not Jewish. When Kali gets the news, she decides to live with her grandmother to keep her safe. While she lives there, she discovers many secrets about her grandmother, including a hidden painting which ultimately carries the story to its twist ending. The opening scene jumps right into the action and mystery:
“[Neil] stopped in the street, just across from [Lillian’s] house, and watched the flickering brightness in all of the windows. The old woman’s silhouette was perfectly still. He could make out her profile--straight nose, angular jaw ending in a pointed chin, long, slender neck--like a flawless cutout for a valentine. She was holding her arm in front of her. In her hand was a long candle. Suddenly, a blaze of orange-blue climbed the lace curtain.”
That, however, is not the only mystery that drives the novel, and it quickly becomes bogged-down in the multiple storylines. Sub-plots and backstory create an intricate set of problems waiting to be resolved, some of which are, but many of which are not. Furthermore, it is not quite clear which plot, sub-plot, or backstory is the most important part of the story. This convoluted structure is a major downfall for The Devil’s Madonna. Sometimes it seems like the reader should be trying to figure out Kali’s grandmother’s strange actions in the opening scene, while other times it seems like Javier’s motives and actions (which are wholly unrelated to the opening scene) should be the main source of concern. The imaginative plot reveals itself through the points of view of several characters as well: Kali, Javier, Lillian, and briefly Neil. These multiple points of view are another source of confusion--confusion which may simply turn into frustration for some readers.
The three main points of view (Kali’s, Javier’s and Lillian’s) tell unequal portions of the story, leaving it feeling lopsided and unresolved. Lillian’s story is riddled with flashbacks during which an unfair amount of information is held back from the reader, making her chapters an especially trying read. For example, most of Lillian’s flashbacks are spent running from a man whose identity the reader does not discover until two-thirds of the way through the book. Much of the story refers to this important character simply as an enigmatic “he,” such as in this passage from the middle of the book:
“She felt a presence in the alley between two houses in the street just above her... She tried to act naturally, but her heart was pounding. Was someone following her, or was she imagining it? ...Ever since arriving in Jersey, she had been conscious of everyone around her, always on the alert for anyone inordinately interested in her. But there had been no disturbing attention, and she had almost believed she was safe...But what if he had found her?...She caught only a flash [of him]. Dark overcoat, broad shoulders, black hat. But in that instant, she saw the light eyes, and she knew. He was here.”
For those unphased by the shifts in narration and obviously intentionally muddled details, the detailed plot provides a lot of creative ideas, even if they take some patience to decipher. Despite the above frustrations, the imagery and descriptiveness of Potts’s prose are enjoyable. Potts puts her readers smack dab in the middle of the Miami Beach setting with beautiful art deco and detailed descriptions of iconic tropical buildings. However, the narration is obscured by occasional grammatical errors. For example, one chapter starts with the sentence: “Kali was strangling,” and another with, “Kali went shouting up the stairs.” Those moments are minor hiccups in Potts’s overall smooth, if repetitive, prose.
Reading The Devil’s Madonna requires some patience and a good memory. Potts makes it clear--very clear--that the reader needs to pay attention to particular items and details in order to piece together the dramatic story. The conspicuousness of those items is often contrived and what begin as delicate and sensitive details become heavy-handed, but for the reader who likes to puzzle together clues, they can be fun.
Potts asks her readers to ask “what if” about 1930s Berlin, and centers a story around the present day effect of the version of history she created. This thriller has some exciting moments with interesting twists and turns of the plot, regardless of the poor overall structure. The story is imaginative, if extravagant, and the story complex, if wandering. It forecasts that anything can happen, and anything does.