Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Author: Michelle Moran
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Crown, 2009
Source: Borrowed from my sister-in-law
Read for: Fun
Most are familiar with the tragic story of Antony and Cleopatra. However, few have heard the story of their children who survived after Egypt was conquered by Caesar Augustus, Selene and Alexander. Cleopatra's Daughter takes us through their following life in Rome in the home of Antony's previous wife, Octavia.
I'd read two Michelle Moran books before Cleopatra's Daughter. One (Madame Tussaud) I absolutely loved, while the other (Nefertiti) was more of a miss for me. Therefore, I wasn't quite sure what to expect with Cleopatra's Daughter. I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed this book about a culture with which I am unfamiliar.
In the Author's Note at the back of the book, Michelle Moran points out that ancient Rome had startling similarities with our own culture, such as women requesting elective C-sections for cosmetic rather than medical reasons. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed reading about this ancient society more than I enjoyed reading about the one presented in Nefertiti. The details Moran illustrates are vivid and poignant, albeit at times disturbing. Rome was a vicious place, with oppressed slaves and almost certain death for anyone who opposed Caesar Augustus (and many who didn't necessarily oppose him were suspect). These stark, painful scenes were contrasted with Selene's memories of her beautiful home in Egypt, creating an interesting counterpoint in the story as we are presented the narrative in Selene's perspective.
I also enjoyed the characters. I think one of the primary enjoyable aspects of historical fiction is the fact that the author takes a known event and then has the liberty to cast the characters in the colors he or she chooses (to an extent, of course, depending on how much is known about that historical figure's personality). Selene was vulnerable and naive, yet ambitious and intelligent. As the horrors of Rome are slowly unveiled to her, she also discovers many of its opportunities, learning first-hand that nothing is cut and dried as perfectly good or perfectly evil. We also experience the changes in her life through the eyes of an adolescent, one who dreams of romance, someone trying to get along with her peers and trying to determine what she will do with her life.
In addition to Selene, I enjoyed the supporting characters. Selene's twin, Alexander, is constantly with her, her closest companion, but a character with secrets of his own. Julia, Caesar Augustus' daughter, is presented as a complex character who is often spoiled but has her own pains and the ability to be loving and generous. Marcellus, the love interest for basically every female in the novel, is charming and handsome. Juba, one of Augustus' most trusted advisors, is complex and prickly. And Caesar Augustus himself is volatile, generally imposing his will without regard to human life, but occasionally surprising the reader with an act of generosity cloaked in a spoiled tantrum.
Plot-wise, the book moves slowly through Selene's experiences, with many episodes in her life being presented. The common thread that ties these episodes together is the presence of a rebel slave known as The Red Eagle who constantly posts treatises on temple and government building doors, discussing Caesar Augustus' treatment of slaves and his policies. Cleopatra's Daughter is essentially a coming-of-age tale for Selene, showing pivotal events in her adolescence. Despite the slow motion of the plot, I found the events enjoyable, especially the hint of romance that is sneaked in at the end.
My one complaint about Cleopatra's Daughter is in the writing. I have mixed feelings about Michelle Moran's writing. For the most part, I find it readable and descriptive. However, something about her transitions leaves something to be desired for me. I often felt as if I was calmly reading Selene's observations on a normal day, only to suddenly realize I was in a paragraph where some pivotal climactic moment was occurring, which was jarring. Smoother transitions would have improved my reading experience.
However, for the most part Cleopatra's Daughter was a well-executed novel about a historical character I knew nothing about. Fans of historical fiction and ancient Rome will enjoy this refreshing look at a lesser-known historial figure.
Warnings: Scenes of violence, disturbing images, some innuendo