Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Poet Prince includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kathleen McGowan. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Maureen follows her new teacher, Destino, to Florence where she begins training in the secret teachings of The Order of the Holy Sepulcher, just as Matilda did before her 1000 years ago. With Destino, Maureen discovers the story of Lorenzo, the man who would be known to history as The Magnificent. But Maureen will learn that Lorenzo’s driving obsession was not one of simple culture; rather, he was creating a body of work to preserve a series of ancient secrets, secrets too powerful and dangerous to be committed to writing. Lorenzo is aided by his mistress, the forbidden lover who obsesses him until he dies – and who acted as muse for some of the most famous and breathtaking paintings in the world.
Maureen is joined by her lover, Berenger, who discovers that he shares an extraordinary legacy with Lorenzo the Magnificent: both were born under the auspices of a prophecy found in the early writing of the Bloodline, the prophecy of The Poet Prince. While Berenger explores the daunting task of filling Lorenzo’s place in the 21st century, he will come face to face with other characters from history who have shared the title of Poet Prince, and who had very deadly enemies. Those enemies have equally dangerous descendants who carry a 500-year-old vendetta against any who support Lorenzo’s form of heresy.
Questions for Discussion
- Felicity is portrayed as a fanatic Catholic who believes Maureen usurped her role as the prophetess. Father Giralomo faced arguments with other fanatics in the confraternity when he spared Maureen’s life. Discuss religious extremism in the novel. How do the extreme views of Felicity move the plot? Can you identify examples of similar behavior seen today?
- Did you know the story of Saint Felicity? What are your reactions to her view on faith? What did Lady Petronella say to anger her? How do these two women represent different paths in Christianity?
- Father Giralomo and the Confraternity were threatened by Maureen’s views regarding sacred sexuality, or Hieros Gamos. How does the concept of Hieros Gamos fit into the novel? Peter wrestles with the idea of celibacy and what he found in the teachings of the Libro Rosso. What are your own views on sexuality and celibacy in regards to your faith? Do you know of other groups that have adopted the idea of Hieros Gamos for their beliefs? What other examples from literature or film have you encountered that explore this topic?
- Immaculate Conception is explained as ‘the conscious conception of a much-desired child.’ How do the teachings of the Libro Rosso support this definition? Does this definition support or refute your beliefs of Immaculate Conception? Do your views stem from historical or religious teachings? Discuss the social impact of challenging the idea of Immaculate Conception.
- Petra says, ‘There is only one way to find your twin soul, and that is to find yourself first.’ Twin souls, or soulmates, are a key part to the story. Discuss the concept of soulmates in relation to Berenger and Maureen. What are some of the ways they show the strength of their bond? Who are some other examples of soulmates in the book? Do you believe in soulmates?
- In her quest for power, Vittoria tells Berenger he is the father of her child. How does this complicate the plot? How does Berenger reconcile his place in society with his spiritual beliefs and love for Maureen?
- Berenger lies to Maureen about his relationship with Vittoria. Did you find this incongruous with his character? How does he rationalize the affair and his lying? How does this affect Maureen and what is her reaction? Do you think that if the roles were reversed, the outcome would have been the same? Do you think that Maureen was right to forgive him?
- The Angelics are referred to as ‘geniuses possessed by divine inspiration’. Discuss how the author identifies some of the Angelics as gifted artists because of their spirituality. How is creating art through the process of infusion important to the teachings of The Way? What examples of this are in the book? What were your first thoughts when Donatello presented the statue of Mary Magdalene as a beggar?
- The author outlines the destiny of the Poet Prince as having been handed through some of history’s most notable characters. Which characters did you recognize and can you imagine their story as a Poet Prince? Discuss the meaning of this destiny as described through the various Poet Princes in the book. Can you identify other historical figures who may have fulfilled this prophecy?
- Re-read the prophecy as recited by Rene d’ Anjou. Discuss the specific ways the story unfolds in relation to the prophecy. Discuss the concept of time in the prophecies, the plotline, and the book itself. Where else in the story is time a force?
- Berenger faces the choice of pursuing duty with Vittoria versus happiness with Maureen. Destino explains that Berenger must past this test or he will have to remain on earth to keep teaching the lessons of The Way. What kept Destino alive all of these years?
- Discuss the parallels in the characters of Lorenzo and Berenger and the notable plot points. Do they relate to their loved ones in similar or different manners? What choices do they make to uphold the teachings of The Way?
- Are you sympathetic to the character of Clairice? How does the author portray her? What were your reactions to this portrayal?
- Pope Sixtus IV says “Under no circumstance have I, the heir to the throne of Saint Peter, condoned murder. I have only said that a change in government to remove the poisonous Medici family from power would be extremely pleasing to your Holy Mother Church.” Discuss the circumstances surrounding the murder of Giuliano de Medici. Who is responsible and what is the significance of where and when it takes place? Beyond power, what are some of the driving factors behind the attempted overthrow? How does the Florentine community react to the violence?
- Spend a moment and discuss the characters of Colombina and Maureen. Do you think that Maureen and Colombina are alike? Do you relate to any of the characters in the book? What other novels have you read with courageous or memorable female characters?
- Did you read The Expected One and The Book of Love? How does The Poet Prince compare? Do you identify with any of the characters? How are the characters in each time period alike? Do you see a pattern of “time returning” as you view these characters together, as all connected by “The Magdalene Line?”
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit www.KathleenMcGowan.com for resources and background information about The Poet Prince.
2. Learn more about the life of Lorenzo de Medici, the godfather of the Renaissance, in Miles J. Unger’s biography Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de' Medici. Compare the biography with the depiction of Lorenzo de Medici in The Poet Prince at your next book club meeting.
3. Have each book club member find an article or news clip about contemporary Roman Catholicism. Discuss the portrayal of the Pope and Catholicism itself in that particular clip or article.
4. Look up the Botticelli paintings as described throughout the book. Do you see the same symbolism that the author asserts? Do you have a different interpretation of the art? Do you believe that the concept of “infusion” works and that a piece of art can be “felt” as well as observed?
A Conversation with Kathleen McGowan
1. With all of the intricacies of history, art history, religion, and literature, how did you conduct your research for The Poet Prince?
I spent a lot of time in Italy while working on this book, as I felt it was necessary to immerse myself in the culture of Florence as deeply as possible. Despite the centuries between us, there is much of that great city which is unchanged. I was determined to see everything possible that was ever in Lorenzo’s possession. So much has been written about Lorenzo, but so little deals with his inner life. And I became more and more convinced that Lucrezia Donati and Lorenzo were together in one way or another until he died, so I wanted to find as much about her as possible. There is very little documentation on her in any language, so it became more of an intuitive process. I stayed in the Antica Torre, and went to the Uffizi and other museums every day for two weeks to study the art at length, sometimes just sitting in front of it to watch how others responded to it as well. Donatello’s Magdalene never fails to knock me off my feet. She is so wretched, yet crafted with so much love.
2. Has the process of writing changed for you with each book in The Magdalene Line? How?
They are all different experiences, because I become so personally and emotionally involved with the characters. With The Expected One, I wrote that book over a ten year period as I was immersed in all of that research and the story kept changing as new details were revealed and confirmed. The Book of Love was the most arduous process – that was a very hard book to write because I felt a deep sense of responsibility to present the information contained within the Libro Rosso in a way that would be easy to accept – some of those concepts are earth shattering for those who have never heard them before. And I had to cut an awful lot of that book because it was very complex. Further, I have a muse for each book, and those women set the tone for the process. Mary Madalene was wise yet powerful while Matilda of Tuscany was pure warrior queen who would not let me sleep until her story was told to her liking. Colombina was a lovely muse, as was the tragic Simonetta. Poet Prince was the most “fun” book I have ever written. I am now under the spell of Anne Boleyn, and this one is going to be quite a wild ride.
3. You mention spending time in Italy while writing this story. What are some other ways you are inspired creatively?
Art! I always immerse myself in the art, architecture, and literature of the era I am writing about because I think this gives a strong perspective on the social climate of the time. And I dig deeply to find supporting characters and stories which need to be told to explore the theme. To this day, the ghost of Savonarola hangs over Florence, and he is still hotly debated: mad monk or saint? I make those judgments based on their actions: are they fueled by love, passion, faith, ego, fanaticism? Digging into the psychology of these minor characters can take the story into a completely unexpected direction.
4. Are the prophecies written in your words or taken from a text?
The prophecies are written in my words, but they are based on the very real teaching of the Order. Monasteries in Belgium, like Matilda’s Orval (for those who read The Book of Love) were the repositories of these bloodline prophecies for centuries. There is a tradition of female prophetesses within the bloodline, and these were preserved. Ultimately, Nostradamus collected these prophecies from the abbeys and used them in his own collections. He tells his son Cesar in a letter that he had to burn the original source material as “they” were coming after him for heresy. So we have no idea what he burned to save himself and his family, but I think we can assume it was something pretty staggering – and priceless. This is the tragedy of history – much of what we need to truly verify our theories was intentionally destroyed.
5. What is your own personal view on astrology? Are birthdays and star signs directly related to the search for love and finding your soulmate?
I have been a practicing astrologer since I was about 12 years old, and I care deeply about this most ancient and accurate science and art. In terms of soulmates, astrology can help you in that search, but only with the help of a gifted astrologer who can cast real charts. It’s not enough to know that you are a Leo and your love interest is an Aquarius. You have to understand many other aspects of that charge – where the planet Venus was positioned for both of you, where the moon was, etc. All of these elements make a difference in compatibility astrology. That said, I believe that the stars suggest, but they do not complete. Marsilio Ficino was fond of saying that we must control astrology and not allow astrology to control us. Sound advice. On another note, those searching for soulmates do need to find themselves first. When you are on the path of fulfilling your life’s mission, you will open the door for your ultimately compatible soulmate to arrive!
6. Is the book within the book, The Time Returns, a reference to your own novel? Why did you choose to have Maureen be a writer?
There is much about Maureen’s experience which mirrors my own, and I need a protagonist character who had the freedom to travel extensively and be her own boss. This is one of the blissful opportunities that come from writing. Also, Maureen has to put herslf out in the public eye to defend her work at great risk, and I think that is a good touchstone for a modern reader to examine. Does the reader believe that Maureen is really in jeopardy for writing controversy? Because she is, based on my own experiences.
7. How has the creation of the character of Maureen affected you and your spirituality?
Maureen is an alter ego for me, a character I can use to explore my own feelings about this work that I do through her. In an amazing “life imitates art” kind of twist, my own life has begun to echo Maureen’s in a strange way, for example I met my own “Berenger Sinclair” while doing research in France – in Rennes le Chateau, to be precise. The deeper I get into the writing of these stories, the more committed I become to serving the message of The Way – of love, charity, peace and community. These women I write about become very real for me as I write about them, as if they were sitting in the same room, looking over my shoulder and correcting me when I’m wrong. Sometimes I “see” a scene completely formed in my head, almost as if I am watching television. This happened in the sequence where Lorenzo and Colombina meet for the first time in the forest. I saw it as a witness, and I transcribed what I saw!
8. Do you have a favorite piece of Renaissance art and why? Of poetry?
My passion for Botticelli was one of the things that fueled my passion for this book. Now, choosing a favorite was difficult to begin with, but it became even more challenging as I began to dig into the hidden symbols, stories and mysteries behind the art. If forced to choose one, it would have to be Primavera. But there is an extraordinary series of frescoes in the private chapel of the Medici Palace, commissioned by Cosimo and painted by Benozzo Gozzoli, that are some of the most magnificent works of art I have ever seen. A ten-year-old Lorenzo is painted as The Poet Prince in a stunning reproduction of the parade he makes his debut in on the Feast of the Magi. As for poetry, I fell in love with Lorenzo’s poetry and if space had allowed would have included it within the book. Few know that Lorenzo was considered a poet of extraordinary talents, and had he not been burdened by politics, we would likely be studying his literary works alongside Dante. His poem written after the death of Simonetta is hauntingly beautiful, and his poetry for Lucrezia Donati is bittersweet to say the least.
9. The words heretic and heresy come up often in the book. Can you talk a little about your own definition of these words?
A heretic is anyone who opposes the doctrine of the Church, but it evolves into something else through history; it often refers to those who are brave enough and/or rebellious enough to assert a spirituality which is personal and separate from the institution of Church. For example, members of the Order (and Cathars) – all deeply devoted Christians – were burned, tortured and otherwise executed because they held beliefs about Mary Magdalene’s role in Jesus’s life (according to Inquisition documents) and because they practiced a form of Christianity that was separate from Rome. Gnosticism was considered a heresy – the belief that humans could have a direct relationship with God - despite the fact that Jesus tells us that this is exactly what we should do! So I am fond of saying that Heresy is in the eyes of the beholder – and that it begins with HER for a reason!
10. What did you learn about family loyalty when researching the history of the Medici?
The Medici were a very close family during Lorenzo’s time and there was immense love between all of them. We know that for certain because even the accounts of their enemies tell us this, not just their friends. The man hired to kill Lorenzo could not do it because he is so overwhelmed by how much love there is within this family. Even in Lorenzo’s most strained moments with Clarice, he is kind to her, even warm and loving, in some of his letters home. There was great loyalty there, and this extended beyond blood. The Medici had many “adopted” members of their family and were equally devoted to those who they chose to allow into their circle.
11. Do you apply the principles of becoming anthropos in your daily life? If so, how?
I try to live by all the principles of the Order and the teachings of the Book of Love and the Libro Rosso. That’s why I wrote my nonfiction book, The Source of Miracles, because it represents the ways I have come to incorporate these teachings into my daily life. Some of them are small, like praying daily, even if only for a short time. Others are larger, like making significant commitments to charity of my time and spirit, not just money. I wake up every day and turn the day over to God, asking for guidance in that I may live with more love and more compassion each day.
12. What piece of advice would you offer to someone who has lost his or her faith?
You are a special, unique, amazing miracle of creation. You are here on earth today because you have something to contribute that is special and only you can do it. Most who have lost faith have been through some kind of terrible emotional ordeal, and they need to allow themselves time to heal, so just take it slow. Start by counting the blessings you do have. Make a gratitude list of the things that you do have, and then make a list of the qualities you possess that can make the world a better place. If you cannot have faith in God or a higher power for any reason, start by having faith in yourself. If you can begin to accept that you are here because you do have something unique to offer the world, you will begin see more light in your life. In the words of Saint Teresa of Avila, “May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. May peace be with you today.”