Reviews of Sacred Well

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Title Page - Friday, May 1, 2009

How real is the Mayan curse?

Antoinette May draws on historical events, interweaving fact and fiction by Jennifer Dietz

"The Sacred Well" Antoinette May; Harper Paperbacks
378 pp.; $14.99

Palo Alto writer and journalist Antoinette May's latest book, "The Sacred Well," offers readers a mix of mythology, history and romance. Like her last novel, which was set in biblical times and follows a heroine who falls under the throes of a mysterious curse, May once again centers on the lives of strong female characters.

"The Sacred Well" interweaves the stories of two women whose careers and love lives run in parallel with one another. May draws inspiration from her own experience as a travel writer in Mexico to create a present-day heroine, Sage Sanborn. While on a reporting assignment, Sage travels to the Yucatan and is instantly captivated by the dramatic story of Alma Reed, an American journalist, and her tragic romance with the progressive and revolutionary Yucatan governor, Felipe Carrillo Puerto.

May's novel draws from actual historical events that make great fodder for fiction. Alma Reed was a rare female reporter in a male-dominated field who traveled with a Carnegie archeological team during the 1920s to explore ancient ruins in the Yucatan. She won accolades for the expose she ultimately published in the New York Times revealing that American archeologists had transported or "stolen" nearly $2 million worth of treasure from the Chichen Itza ruins — sending the artifacts to the Peabody Museum in Boston for safekeeping.

As it is told in the novel, Alma also came to learn of a myth surrounding the sacred well. At the time, it was widely believed that those who disturbed or made known the secrets of Maya would be cursed — made to lose the one thing they love most.

The question that carries throughout the novel is how real or imagined this curse may be, whether or not it will come back to haunt Alma and Felipe as the young divorcee and governor enter into a love affair that shocks the religiously conservative populace of the Yucatan, and if the archeologist who has helped to steal the Mayan treasures for the Peabody museum and then spilled the secrets of the ruins to Alma may also suffer the consequences.

And finally, there is even the question of whether or not the curse may continue on into the present day, when Sage goes herself to visit the well.

In alternate chapters of the novel, Sage follows in Alma's footsteps, seeking to uncover new facts about the journalist's life, and by writing Alma's biography, share those secrets with a new generation of readers. But like her predecessor, Sage soon finds herself falling passionately in love, only in her case it is with a scientist she meets while in the Yucatan who encourages her to pursue Alma's story. Sage is torn between the lure and excitement of Mexico and her adventuresome lover and the obligation and loyalty she feels to the partner she has left behind in Palo Alto, who, as the novel progresses, becomes increasingly fragile as he succumbs to cancer.

The most compelling portions of "The Sacred Well" are those that illuminate historical events. The glimpses into the violent political upheaval taking place in Mexico in the early 20th century with the populist governor working to democratize the Yucatan and enfranchise the working class against the will of the Spanish landowners who then seek retaliation, the intrigue around the Mayan artifacts uncovered in the ruins of Chichen Itza and then stolen by the Americans, and the illicit love affair between an American reporter and the married governor of a staunchly Catholic state, all make for fascinating subject matter. The writing behind the storytelling, however, is often not powerful or nuanced enough to truly convince.

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The novel moves back and forth between two narratives, that of Sage Sanborn in the present day, and of Alma Reed, who lived and wrote nearly a century earlier. Both portions of the novel are told in the first person, which poses a challenge for the author to differentiate the speaking manner of her two heroines, and unfortunately, the voices seem almost interchangeable and equally contemporary. Dialog and description in both portions of the novel tend to fall too easily into the language and clichés that are the standard fare of romance novels, such as when Felipe presents Alma with a wedding ring. "My fingers trembled slightly as I opened the box. The ring inside made me gasp. Diamonds flanked the large sapphire, sparkling blue yet with a hidden depth. ... 'I've never seen anything so beautiful,' I told him. My heart raced; this was happening too fast."

Still, for readers who are looking for a light, entertaining story, "The Sacred Well" is easily digestible and a quick, easy read filled with intrigue and suspense. The exotic setting, the drama of a mystical curse, and two steamy and scandalous love affairs keep the pages turning.

And, as was the case in her first novel, May does succeed in avoiding the predictable ending of a paperback romance. Instead of wrapping things up neatly for either character, both heroines find their pursuit of romance thwarted at various stages, and are forced to look for less conventional means of achieving their own happy endings.

Freelance writer Jennifer Deitz can be reached at

The Sacred Well – Antoinette May
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Title: The Sacred Well
Author: Antoinette May

ISBN: 9780061695551
Pages: 400
Release Date: March 24, 2009
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5

From the back cover:
A young reporter in 1923, Alma Reed accompanies archaeologists to the ruins of Chichen Itza, where a fortune in Mayan artifacts has been stolen from a sacrificial well.
It's believed a curse was unleashed by the theft—yet the career-making story it offers the ambitious journalist seems a godsend. It also leads her to a passionate love affair with revolutionary governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto. But when fate darkens their lives and damns them as doomed political pawns, Alma can't help but wonder if the curse is not, in fact, very real.
In another century, another writer is fascinated by Alma's tragic story. Drawn restlessly to Yucatán—and away from the stifling needs of her desperately ill partner—Sage Sanborn is tempted by her growing feelings for David, a scientist who encourages her to delve deeper into Alma's history. And in this ancient place of mystery and spirits, Sage must make an impossible decision that will forever change the course of her life.

I have always found the culture and history of the Mayan people fascinating, though I’m sorry to say that I don’t know much about them. Therefore, when I stumbled upon The Sacred Well at the bookstore, I was more than eager to give it a try. I thought that The Sacred Well was a compelling novel that was carefully researched and very well written.
I loved how May took the historical figure of Alma Reed – though I admit, I didn’t realize she was an actual person until the author’s afterword – and breathed life into her through her book. I don’t know anything about Mexican history of the early 20th century, so I really feel like I learned a lot by reading this book.

I definitely found Alma’s story more interesting than Sage’s, though I think that was intentional on the author’s part This book was much more about Alma – that’s the reason that most of the story is told in her voice, in her time. However, I found both characters to be well developed, though I thought Felipe and Alma’s romance to be a bit rushed.

If you’re interested in Mexican or Mayan history, or archaeology in general, I definitely recommend The Sacred Well. This well researched book is certainly a gem that I’m thrilled I stumbled upon. I look forward to seeing what May does next!

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Jane Bowers
Romance Reviews Today

THE SACRED WELL - Antoinette May
Harper Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-0-06-169555-1
April 2009 Fiction

California and Mexico - the 1920s and the Present Travel writer Sage Sanborn is in the Yucatan on assignment. She left behind in California her long-time companion, Mark, who is ill from cancer. With her life consumed with caring for Mark, this trip to Mexico provides a soothing respite.

On a rainy night, as she avoids her traveling companions, Sage meets David, a visiting scientist who encourages her to pursue her curiosity about Alma Reed, a fellow Californian who was linked with the former governor of the Yucatan in the nineteen twenties. Their story has intrigued Sage, and now, the very area where the couple met presents her with the perfect opportunity to dig further into their tale.
David accompanies her as she visits places where Alma went, all the while hearing the beautiful song Felipe had composed for her. Their lives haunt Sage as she sees more than a few comparisons to her own life.

Divorced and aching to escape from recent memories, Alma Reed takes an assignment from her newspaper to join a group of archeologists who will visit the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. She is immediately mesmerized by the beautiful country and its violent history, both recent and past. But when she meets the dynamic Felipe Carillo Puerto, the Yucatan's governor, Alma loses her heart completely. Married, with several children, Felipe is equally beguiled, and he begins a courtship that could ruin them both.

As Alma learns more about Felipe's Mayan ancestors, visiting the various temples and ruins, she also discovers the more sinister parts of that civilization, including the sacred well where human sacrifices were made. Is there a link between the forbidden love she feels for Felipe and the well? Are their feelings for one another cursed?

THE SACRED WELL is brilliantly told --- a story of love, devotion, and honor.
Sage is a modern woman whose decency and sense of fair play keep her from letting her heart go completely. She sees in Alma a compatriot of sorts, and wants to know more about this complicated, heart-on-her-sleeve woman who risks all to love a man. Alma, a woman before her time, leads the life she chooses, and her story will leave readers wanting to know more about her.

A fictional account of the real Alma Reed and Felipe Carillo Puerto, THE SACRED WELL is lush, romantic, and filled with emotion.
Jani Brooks Romance Reviews Today

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Harriet Klausner
Midwest Book Review Sacred Well
Antoinette May
Harper, Mar 24 2009, $14.99
ISBN: 9780061695551

Fortyish travel writer Sage Sanborn is in Mexico's Yucatan on a writing assignment to describe romantic spots in the Peninsula. During a storm, she rushes inside a tavern in Merida. There she meets David Winslow who asks her to join him for a drink. They listen to a local band play a haunting love song that David insists was written by a former states governor.

In 1923 Yucatan Governor Felipe Carillo Puerto and American female journalist Alma Reed met and fell in love. She reported the plundering of Mayan artifacts, which angers some locals. Soon afterward Felipe is assassinated; Alma blames herself for the murder of her beloved as her article led to his death.

Sage returns to San Francisco where her boyfriend Mark lives to write the heartbreaking story of Felipe and Alma. However, she also misses David and considers returning to him and the Yucatan.

SACRED WELL is an intriguing premise of an American female reporter investigating the true life story of Alma Reed. The two subplots eight plus decades apart are fascinating to follow especially the historical based on the tragic love between Alma and Felipe. Although the contemporary lacks the excitement of the 1920s, fans will enjoy this fine tale of a modern American journalist searching for what her counterpart found in 1923 in the Yucatan.

Harriet Klausner
Midwest Book Review
Agent: Irene Webb/Irene Webb Literay

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Javelina's Full Review: Antoinette May - The Sacred Well: A Novel

I try not to judge a book by it's cover, but this book caught my attention in the new books section of the library with it's image of Chichen-Itza on the cover. I have been to Mexico several times and find Mayan history and culture very interesting and the cover captured my attention instantly.

"A young reporter in 1923, Alma Reed accompanies archaeologists to the ruins of Chichen Itza, where a fortune in Mayan artifacts has been stolen from a sacrificial well. It's believed a curse was unleashed by the theft—yet the career-making story it offers the ambitious journalist seems a godsend. It also leads her to a passionate love affair with revolutionary governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto." (HarperCollins)

The Book

This book was released May 2009, and I found the paperback version in the new books section at the library. It is written by Antoinette May, who I am not familiar with, but has written several other books (including some others about the Yucatan).

My Thoughts

This book is set up in an interesting way. It starts with a modern day reporter/writer, Sage Sanborn, who loves writing about her travel experiences. She is drawn into a story by a man (David) she meets in the Yucatan. He speaks of a woman named Alma and that there is a mystery surrounding Alma's past in the Yucatan. Sage is drawn into the story and is also sort of captured by David's own mysteriousness. At the same time she deals with inner turmoil about her partner or boyfriend Mark, who she she cares for and is very ill.

The structure of the book goes back and forth between Sage and

The structure of the book goes back and forth between Sage and

Alma. Alma's story starts in 1923, and she too is a reporter. She makes a trip to the Yucatan to cover a news story with some archaeologists. The premise of her trip was interesting enough in that she is a young female reporter doing something that not a lot of women had done, being a successful writer and traveling to Mexico for a story.

The twist in the book is when Alma meets governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto. The two fall in love and their fate is forever changed by their meeting. At the same time, it seems like Sage is torn in making her own life-changing decisions, so it was enjoyable to have a story that was interconnected between past and present.

Both stories were unusual and interesting. I liked the idea of women pursuing what they wanted or not necessarily following stereotypical roles. And, both women were torn when it came to making some big decisions; something probably everyone has experienced. Of course love does complicate things, and it made the story feel so real. I appreciated the unusual circumstances and how both women felt so conflicted in the positions they were in.

I really enjoyed the historical side of Mexico (as well as the present). The author did a beautiful job of presenting the Yucatan to the readers and really bringing it alive. May brings images of Mexico to life and paints a vivid picture of what it was like for both Sage and Alma. And in Alma's case, what it was like in the Yucatan and cities like Merida in the 20's. She also depicted the interesting political scenes very well. Instead of being potentially dry or overwhelming

(since the political climate had a big role in the big), I found it very interesting. I loved reading about both women visiting some beautiful cenotes (collapsed caves in Mexico) as I have done in the past. I enjoyed the author's account of those amazing turquoise waters and their seemingly bottomless qualities, as well as the tranquility of the jungle and so on.

There were many aspects to this book, all of which I enjoyed. There was the history portion, which talked about true history and politics, and sort of analyzed Alma's life as a female reporter in the 1920's. It also had a lot of romance and tradgedy as well, both in Alma's story as well as Sage's. In a sense there was a big parallel which was Sage's big draw to the story, but much of the story was relatable whether it was to Sage or to the reader.

Alma and Sage are truly the main characters in this book, so the author was able to devote a lot of time to developing their characters. Sometimes I didn't look forward to the switch in time between the two, only because I was getting caught up in one or the other's story, but it goes to show that the story was engaging.


I thought this book was creative and interesting. Normally I stay away from "historical" fiction or mysteries, but in this case I was truly involved in the story. As a mystery in the 20's in the Yucatan, it was definitely something different to read, and I enjoyed the refreshing and original subject.

Antoinette May: The Sacred Well:

Recommended: Yes

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