Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Stacy Schiff, CLEOPATRA

This was another bookclub pick, and it seemed a sure thing. (As a side note, does anyone out there remember the movie The Sure Thing? I first saw it in college and caught part of it on TV the other night. Wow, Cusack was young back then. Oh yeah, so was I. Hm.)
Anyway, CLEOPATRA is everywhere. It's been on the bestseller list for weeks. It has received glowing reviews. Schiff is an acknowledged talent. So I was perplexed when everyone in my bookclub except for two hardy souls bailed on the book. Most gave it the required fifty-page try before pronouncing it "a slog," "unengaging," and "disappointing." Then, while traveling recently, I saw a friend who belongs to two bookclubs in the midwest. She said that with only one exception, everyone in both clubs had disliked it and failed to finish it.
So I sat down to study the book, curious to find out why it didn't seem to engage this disparate group of readers (most of whom are pretty omnivorous).
I think part of the problem is that--as with a trailer that doesn't quite match the movie--we have a certain set of expectations when we open a book called CLEOPATRA, as opposed to a book called, say, TAXATION IN THE 1960S. The book cover is marvelous, exotic, coy--the model's shoulders are draped in vibrant red that shades to rich purple; her hair is tidily pinned, but tendrils escape; her face, turned away, is barely visible but beautiful all the same. We've all read the myths and stories about Cleopatra. They're sensational, larger than life, intriguing. And perhaps unconsciously, we approach this book expecting to be intrigued, engaged, passionately interested from the first page.
But this book lacks two of the ingredients that tend to draw readers in: dialog and scenes. For example, at one point early on, Schiff describes Cleopatra's education: "Aeschylus and Sophocles, Hesiod, Pindar, and Sappho, would all have been familiar to Cleopatra and the clique of well-born girls at her side. As much for her as for Caesar, there was little regard for what was not Greek. She probably learned even her Egyptian history from three Greek texts. Some schooling in arithmetic, geometry, music, and astrology and astronomy ... She read aloud or was read to by teachers or servants." I'm not saying this sort of synopsis is a flaw. But I think most readers would be more engaged by a scene showing Cleopatra with her tutor.
So then I wondered if Schiff was reluctant to perform this smudging of the line between biography and historical fiction. I love historical fiction. I willingly--no gladly!--suspend my disbelief. I'm thinking of the works of, say, Jeff Shaara, in which he imagines the arguments between Eisenhower and Patton, for example. I don't believe for a minute that Shaara is accurately representing the words that were said between the two men (or that he expects us to think he is). But I'm thoroughly sucked in. And consider UNBROKEN. For all the accomplished research, the book is a page-turner because we are provided harrowing scenes, with dialog (accurate or not--and let's not even get into the problems of translating the Japanese to English). In striving to win readers to their version of the "truth," these writers (Shaara and Hillenbrand) could be said to sacrifice "accuracy." And if Schiff wants to stay closer to biography than historical fiction, so be it. But then a friend told me that she was listening to NPR and Schiff described the work as historical fiction. (I confess I haven't looked up that NPR string.)
Schiff's scholarship is ambitious and thorough. I'd say that a successful read of this book may simply require managing expectations. That said, I'd be interested in another book about Cleopatra. If anyone out there knows of a good one, please comment.

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