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Stacy Schiff: Cleopatra: A Life
Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life was one of 2010’s most-hyped books. The reason for all of the excitement was twofold: first, Schiff is a respected Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author. Secondly; and more importantly, the choice of Cleopatra for a subject is bound to be an instant hit, as the ancient Egyptian queen’s story is shrouded in intrigue and mystery.
Cleopatra has been a favourite subject in literature and popular culture since the first century BC, but readers expecting a dramatic tale of romance and betrayal should beware; Schiff’s rendering of Cleopatra’s life is geared towards correcting the rampant misconceptions about the queen, piled up by centuries of irresponsible historians and overeager writers and commentators, including the likes of Cicero and Shakespeare.
Far from being an easy (or, for that matter, entertaining) read, Cleopatra: A Life is hard-core historical account that is heavy on facts, sources and chronologies with meticulous attention to detail. Much of the 304-page book is occupied with analyses of contradictory sources in an attempt to piece together what is probably true, and what is most likely false, about Cleopatra’s life.
While Schiff’s effort is an admirable work of painstaking historical research, her storytelling leaves a lot to be desired in Cleopatra: A Life. The book’s highly academic content and choppy, jargon-heavy writing style makes it a difficult, and often boring, read; despite the valuable content.
That being said, the content is a truly remarkable feat of intensive research on Schiff’s part. The author has delved into every ancient and contemporary source imaginable; and even spent time conducting on-site research in Alexandria in order to faithfully reconstruct the Mediterranean world during Cleopatra’s lifetime.
Context is paramount in this work: the reader absorbs the events as they happened, while gaining insight into small but important details such as how Romans viewed Greeks during this time, what languages royalty spoke, and the differences in the treatment of women between Rome and Alexandria.
The book’s descriptions of Alexandria’s pre-eminence, Egypt’s bounty, Rome’s rough edges and everything in between are marvellous, as are the explanations of the Ptolemaic rulers, ancient Egyptian religious life, and the ins and outs of the Roman Empire during this period.
Schiff’s portrayal of Alexandria leaves the impression of a city largely unrecognisable today, and casts light on a period in history that has been obscured by inaccurate portrayals and the spin of popular culture. Schiff is to be applauded for finally providing history buffs with an accurate portrayal of Cleopatra’s life based on available facts, and crafted with a historian’s understanding of the value of sources and a strong sense of context.
Creating work on Cleopatra that is both factual and boring is a doubly difficult feat. Schiff is to be applauded for her work, but a more fluid and entertaining writing style would only enhance the book’s content and make it more accessible to a wider audience of readers.
Penny Vincenzi's latest novel The Decision tells the story of Eliza Fullerton-Clark and Matt Shaw who live in London in the 60s. Eliza is a society girl, carving out a career for herself in the fashion industry and Matt becomes a millionaire by working in the property market.
Introduced by Eliza's brother, they get married, but it's not long before their seemingly-solid marriage goes downhill. Eliza wants to keep pursuing her career, but Matt's old-fashioned notions require her to stay at home and raise their only girl, Emmie.
The entire story is pretty much given away in the synopsis. It feels like the author is robbing you of the element of surprise; you already know they are getting a divorce. The only part that the author holds back on until the end of the novel is the results of the court battles over custody of their daughter. Emmie is a spoiled brat of a child; a fact that makes it difficult for readers to sympathize with her.
There are many subplots seamlessly woven into the main plot, adding richness and depth to the story. Readers might even find themselves more interested in the fates of the secondary characters than Eliza's and Matt's.
Vincenzi's writing is laden with poignancy. She accurately describes how marriages that are often fuelled by so much passion can gradually deteriorate into a battle. In this aspect, Eliza and Matt are extremely relatable.
The Decision is such a long read, but that doesn't detract from its enjoyment. The longer pages only mean additional engagement with the characters' lives, but it also means that Vincenzi ends up repeating herself quite often.
The story captures many of the time’s ill-founded ideas against women, but it also includes many female characters that challenged the ideologies of the 60s. Louise, Matt's business partner, is a headstrong woman who won't let anything come between her and her goals, while his sister Scarlett is another female character who does things her own way.
The author takes readers back to the 60s and offers vivid portraits of different aspects of life back then; however, the plot could have easily fit into any other time.
Vincenzi's avid fans might find The Decision a tad disappointing. It's not quite as addictive as the rest of her novels, and it generally sticks to the author's pattern, making it even more predictable.