Most people are familiar with the Pygmalion myth in which a sculptor creates the perfect woman who then comes to life. In Heaven’s Rogue, Colleen Shannon’s heroine doesn’t create her perfect man, she literally stumbles upon him during a hiking trip in Italy. At the bottom of a Roman cistern, Dr. Honoria Fitzhugh discovers a life-size replica of Michelangelo’s David. An art historian with a longtime fascination with the original, Honor takes the statue back to the States to prove that it was actually created by Michelangelo as a kind of practice before he began the larger masterwork. Faster than you can say, My Fair Lady, the diminutive David is breathing, talking, and stepping down off of his pedestal and into Honor’s lonely life.
The Renaissance man is actually Dominico Castiglione, one of Michelangelo’s former assistants who forsook art for the mercenary life, drinking, fighting, and snuggling up to women of ill-repute. When he lost all he held dear, Dominico went on a bender, cursing God and thereby bringing down his wrath. An angel appeared, had him assume the pose of David, and turned him to stone, telling him that he would be awakened before the new millennium. If he could find his sole living descendant and reform him before the dawn of the year 2000, Dom’s soul would be redeemed and he would be allowed to choose between living in this age or returning to his own. If he failed, he would return to his stony state. Talk about a supermodel.
Dom and Honor flee to New York where they hope to find his descendant and clear Honor’s name. (The Italian government is clamoring for the statue’s return and Honor can hardly explain its disappearance.) At this point, Shannon’s innovative if slightly strained plot slows to an excruciating crawl. What could have been an exciting story of a couple determined to stay together despite time or place, turns into a recycled mishmash of forced internal conflicts punctuated by random fist-fights and plodding self-examination.
Shannon doesn’t seem comfortable with the attraction between Honor and Dom just being pre-destined so we’re asked to believe that these people fall in love by getting to know one another. But Shannon prefers to tell us about this maturing attraction, rather than showing us. The couple’s roadtrip is disappointingly abbreviated. Once they arrive in New York, though they share the same apartment, they go to separate jobs and their interactions degenerate to constant miscommunications. Dom and Honor pine. They whine. They make personal resolutions then break them a few short paragraphs later. Perhaps, Shannon intends this to be humanizing, but without the help of a savvy editor, it’s simply irritating. At least one-hundred pages of self-pity and internal debate could have been cut.
Shannon’s habit of telling rather than showing, hurts her most when it comes to Dom’s character. He’s arrogant, childishly possessive, and jealous to the point of violence. Now, don’t get me wrong, this reader loves her alphas, but Dom spends so much of his time getting into fist fights and flexing his jaw that it’s hard to understand what Honor sees in him. There’s also the matter of this little gem that Dom busts out with when he gets a look at Honor’s body: “You are slim and shapely, unlike the fat women so admired in my own time.” Got great curves? Great curves deserve a dis from a 500 year old Calista Flockhart fan.
Meanwhile, Shannnon has created a fantastic character in Nick, the older brother of Honor’s assistant. Nick is a former cop with enough of the requisite rough edges to make him suitably flinty, but with a maturity and depth the rest of Shannon’s character’s lack. Nick’s wounded but wastes no time on self-pity. Most importantly, he brings out Honor’s most likable traits. They had so much chemistry that I was hoping for some kind of turnaround, but there are no surprises in this book.
It doesn’t help that Shannon’s style is desperately over-written. In Shannon’s world, a Thanksgiving turkey isn’t just a turkey, it’s a “magnificent bird.” She likes to use hyphenated nouns like “pleasure-pain” and “joy-sadness.” But while Shannon’s purple style might be forgivable, the novel is loaded with inaccuracies and inconsistencies that give it an amateurish feel. She goes to great lengths to give Dom’s internal monologues an antiquated feel using phrases like, “ten of the clock,” and referring to buttons as “fasteners.” Then she undoes all of that hard work with a sentence like, “His hands began to itch to paddle Honor’s pert little butt.” Another example is the art critic who verbally attacks Honor in the first chapter only to be transformed into a grandfatherly figure in their next interaction, murmuring, “What’s amiss, my child?”
Finally, maybe it’s unfair to ask a paranormal to make sense, but this plot was just full of holes. Honor is a doctor of art history, but she doesn’t wait for the most rudimentary lab tests before she claims the statue is Michelangelo’s work at a public lecture. She serves prominent art critics and the museum’s most important benefactors punch and cookies. Her specialty is Renaissance art, yet she doesn’t know the Classical myth from which her middle name is derived (retold inaccurately by Dom). The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is repeatedly referred to as the Metropolis Museum of Art. If there were copyright reasons for this, she should have simply chosen another museum or substituted a private collection. And what about the small matter of David? And I do mean “small matter.” Take a look at the original and see if you think all of his features are as “titanic” as Shannon claims. Let’s not even touch on the problem of his proportions or the fact that many art historians believe David to have been modeled on a 14 year-old boy.
As a last warning, Shannon has attempted a risky pairing of heavy sensuality and an emphasis on Catholicism in this book. It’s a bold choice since so many paranormals seem to sidestep matters of religion in favor of vague spirituality. But Shannon has also chosen to give Honor a gay assistant who is a devout Catholic. There is never any indication that he or any of the other Catholics in the book have ever had to wrestle with this. It doesn’t have to be a major issue, but some suggestion of how this man has dealt with the attitudes of the Catholic Church is called for. The issue of pre-marital sex is debated, but then easily set aside.
Whether Shannon’s treatments of the art world, Spanish Harlem, academia, the internet, or Catholicism come across as tentative sketches or cartoons. Though she deserves credit for a unique and far-reaching plot, Shannon should have left the story of David to Michelangelo.