The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Doubleday, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Doubleday

I was really looking forward to this read! I had an interesting relationship with The Intuitionist, having read it in college and not quite grasped it then came back to it later and enjoyed it more. I love everything that Colson Whitehead is about (and I hope to read Zone One soon), but this particular foray into his work turned out to be a little less than a love affair for me.

The Underground Railroad starts on the Randall plantation in Georgia around 1812. This plantation is an amalgamation of every horror and tragedy you’ve ever heard of about slavery. Slaves are beaten and raped for amusement, even on display for the entertainment of guests sipping lemonade; attempts at fleeing from bondage or bucking the system are (often arbitrarily) met with public displays of execution, from being strung up and castrated to a good ole-fashioned tarring and feathering. Life on the plantation is as rough for women—who are used as breeders for more slaves, hence more money, and are constantly at the mercy of male appetites, both from those in the ivory tower and those in the fields—as it is for the laboring men. In the midst of it all, Cora, a stray who’s gained a bit of a scarlet letter because her mother fled the plantation and left her behind years back, starts her long journey to freedom one quiet night with nothing but a sack of unripe turnips, two companions and the North Star as their guide. But the untold horrors that she will face ahead of her on this trek will sometimes rival those that she left behind. With a bounty on her head and dreams of education and freedom beckoning her forward, she will stop through a slew of Southern states—all with their own systems of Southern justice and oppression—and find herself on Whitehead’s re-envisaged Underground Railroad.

Within these pages, you’ll embark on a re-imagined historical truth that could only be a creation of Colson Whitehead. Here, the Underground Railroad is—get this—an actual train (or a single, rickety locomotive, but you get the point), complete with a conductor. At times that term is more allegorical than actual, but even the conductors have their own pasts that, at times, ensnare Cora in their trap-like grasp. Human sterilization to control the growth of the Negro population (which, in some states, “problematically” rivals the numbers of the white population), blackface, and the Tuskegee Project are all touched on here, are all experienced by our heroine in some periphery of her journey.

Those are the goodie takeaways.

Now for my qualms. This novel would’ve been better served being written in first person, for Cora’s chapters at the very least. This is a harrowing journey, a terrifying trek into the unknown for a young woman who has never been outside of the confines of the Randall Plantation for her entire life. She’s never worked for her own wages, never bought her own new dress, never even been to see a doctor. We want to see, touch and taste every moment of what she feels. We want to quiver when she quivers and scream when she hurts. We want to experience these truths re-imagined for ourselves, because this is a remarkable journey set in a harrowing past that our country would rather keep hushed and obscured. To truly break us out of this—to truly immerse us in this and better make the point that he sought to make—we should’ve been squarely in Cora’s shoes, not watching her from above in a slightly removed, vaguely clinical 3rd person.

While Whitehead’s intellectualism serves his plots well, it doesn’t do the greatest wonders for soulful and immersive execution. Perhaps that comes down to being a matter of personal preference. I found his writing style, as was the case in his The Intuitionist as well, to be talented but, yes, just a tad by the way of clinician. And finesse—oh, finesse, thou art an allusive thing! Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of it here, and by that I mean that this was quite the bull-ride read: jerky and rough. I had to re-read several passages, because segues from one event to the next were often non-existent. Suddenly, you were in a saloon, or in the middle of an attack by rogue outlaws, then learning letters in a schoolhouse. Literally, a person could go from alive to dead in a single, four-sentence paragraph! Um, what?? (Shaking head vigorously.) What just happened now?

description

Also, I could’ve done without the backstory chapters of the minor characters. Every single one of those “let-me-elaborate-on-this-(minor)-character’s-past-life” chapters could’ve been gutted from this manuscript—all except for one. And that one you’ll know when you read it.

Still, Colson Whitehead managed to touch on the justifications and absolutions that the antebellum South descriptionwhispered to themselves at night to justify their actions, biblical references that laid the way for Manifest Destiny and all the other gluttonous rationalizations that makes slavery possible, in any land, in any era. And for that, I applauded him.

The story itself was great—a truly epic adventure—but the pace at which it jerked, sometimes lullingly slow and others at whiplash-inducing speeds, turned me off. And, I have to say, any novel where I feel even the slightest urge to skim and skip ahead can never get 4 stars from me. But his work is definitely unique in its own right, and for that I would absolutely recommend this novel to anyone who has read the blurb and marked it as to-read, to anyone who’s already familiar with Whitehead’s talents and appreciated them, and for those who have yet to become familiar with them. I have a deep respect for this author; the style just didn’t work for me the way I’d hoped this time, and for that I award 3.5 stars ***

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Hardcover, 492 pages
Published April 19th 2016 by Random House

Eligible is the witty and modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Here you will find the Bennett sisters in the 21st century, complete with artificial insemination, yoga, and fad workout obsessions among other more raucous taboos. Here you will also find nearly 200 chapters—oh my goodness, those chapters; more on those below—and a page count a bit gratuitous for such a read. HOWEVER, within that excessive page count you will also find, sharply entertaining dialogue that’s convincingly witty and shockingly blunt that will keep you laughing along with the Bennett family throughout.

Eligible and I had a bit of a tug-of-war over my reader feelings for the first few chapters, I’ll admit. The dialogue struck me as funny, yes, even ingenious, but also superficial and surface-deep, if that. Initially, the characters struck me as two-dimensional chalk outlines that just happened to speak with droll absurdity that worked. Ah, but then I got to know the Bennett sisters a little better! If Sittenfeld was aiming for jaunty and clever, she certainly hit the nail on the head and was able to keep it consistent throughout. The writing was anecdotal, sometimes to its detriment and at times to its credit, but highly entertaining most of the time.

I must say that I’d be completely misleading you if I didn’t prepare soon-to-be readers for that chapter formatting, though. Some will love it, because it made the read feel that it was moving along faster—helpful when you’re holding almost 500 pages of what is essentially light-read chick lit in your hand—but for those of you who want to be profoundly engrossed and deeply invested in your characters, you may find this to be a bother. I straddled this line. There were times when I was practically dizzy with all of the vignette-type chapters sprawled out here, several of them less than a page long (that goes for pages on your phone, Kindle, iPad—less than a page anywhere, on any reading medium, really). I felt inundated by 200 flash fictions, which just happened to link together into a full-length story. At times I found it to be slightly annoying; sometimes I loved it because it seemed to make the read feel lightning fast, and sometimes it made me feel disconnected from the characters and their world because there wasn’t enough there in the chapter to pull me in. In the end, I think both sides canceled each other out for me, and it was fine.

Eligible definitely could’ve been cut down though. I don’t believe for a second that the editor didn’t notice those superfluous chapters that led nowhere—anecdotes about the past and random streams of consciousness—which should’ve been yanked out, because that definitely contributed to the relatively high page count and my antsyness toward the end. But aside from that last round of edits that went undone, this was a really funny and entertaining read. In the end, I did end up caring about the characters once I settled in—Darcy was my favorite, by far. Sittenfeld gets extra kudos for the way that this one came full circle. If you’ve ever read Austen’s classic on which this one is based, you basically knew how it would end, but Sittenfeld managed to toss in plenty of surprises along the way. I also liked the way that the title was used as a double entendre throughout this novel. Well done.

All in all, I found Eligible to be a jaunty little read that smacked of WASPy delights. It would make for a brilliant movie, likely better than it read, though I enjoyed it on a whole. The characters had wit and flair that would translate well on the silver screen. And, I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention my appreciation for the way that Sittenfeld handled Mrs. Bennetts’ casual xenophobia, cooly admonishing her as ridiculous, foolish and behind the times with just the right hint of “just the way it is.” That aspect added an extra layer of funny in a way that could have easily fallen flat or warranted an eye roll (like its counterpart The Nest, which I have also reviewed. If you’re a chick-lit lover, or even curious about the retelling of an Austen classic, this one will really work for you. Indeed, if you were a fan of The Nest,Eligible will work for you as well, because this one is definitely its much prettier younger cousin that you’ll be glad you chose instead).

So, keeping in mind that this was light-read material not intended to be the next Harper Lee brainchild, I give this one an easily attained 4 stars. ****

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 5th 2016 by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“How do you know you didn’t ruin my life forty years ago?”
“From what I can see, you never looked back.”
“I looked back, believe me,” she says.
“That makes two of us.”

Firstly, let me say to those who have read this novel, I have no idea why the Goodreads summary made me think I was going to be getting this:

description

For those of you who haven’t read it and are considering it, it’s not that. 🙂

**CAUTION, this review contains (mild) spoilers**
In 1631, Sara de Vos is a painter ahead of her time who is plagued with debts and personal losses. Centuries after her death, her last known attributed work hangs on the bedroom wall of a wealthy lawyer, Marty de Groot, in 1950s Manhattan, until one day, it doesn’t. Marty discovers that the painting, which has been in his family for generations, has been stolen and replaced with a brilliantly executed fake. So brilliant, in fact, that it took him months to even notice the switch. It is Ellie Shipley, a graduate student from Australia with a talented eye for art and a desire to push her artistic capabilities, who is hired to forge the painting, forever joining their lives in a complex weave of events and emotions. 40 years later, Ellie is a celebrated art historian and curator who is putting on an exhibition on the topic that has compelled her and her work for her entire adult life: the Dutch Golden Age. The last known painting of Sara de Vos, At the Edge of a Wood, still haunts them both, for the forgery that Ellie painted decades before will now resurface at the same exhibit that she’s curating, threatening to end her career and tarnish her name forever.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a novel that straddles the line between contemporary and historical fiction. Let me take this opportunity to say that I was truly on board with this one at the start, but then it lost me a little about midway, maybe a little before, and then picked me up again in the last quarter or so. This novel was a good combination of fiction and research. Not brilliant, not mind-blowing, but good. Strap yourself in and get ready to be fully immersed in a painter’s world, from a how-to on mixing rabbit hides for paint to entire narrative passages how to deconstruct a 400-year-old canvas. I’m on the fence on how I feel about how the research was displayed, leaning towards positive but not all the way there. On the one hand, it allowed me to trust the narration, made the world that Smith painted (no pun intended) far more believable, and I learned a few things from this read, which is always a plus.

BUT on the other hand, I definitely felt that I didn’t need allof it. It wasn’t quite info dump, but it was a bit much at times. For example, reading pages of 17th century minutiae such as making “apothecary blends of Ceylon loose leaf.” Honestly, I don’t even know what that passage was about. Possibly 17th century teas? Maybe? These were nice touches in and of themselves, but too many of them began to weigh me down a little. That can be a problem with fiction based heavily on research—or research-based non-fiction that tries to read like fiction—the author doesn’t know when tolay off of the research and dive into the plot; they want to include every. little. piece. of information that they found in an effort to set the setting (which was my main gripe withThe Witches as well, by the way—at times the 17th century chapters here read similarly to those).

What I can say is that I never felt that any of the story lines suffered, though there were at least three in play at once, occurring in different time periods and on various continents. The Last Painting was almost Brontë-esque, which I can see a lot of people really enjoying. The settings were meticulously set; the story line seemed to meander on leisurely, as if on a stroll through Central Park, reminiscent of those good ole’ days—pre television—of classical writing, which left me, in a way, nostalgic.

There were times when the writing was tender, but it always stopped just shy of being emotive, often somewhere between clinical and touching. I felt I was an onlooker, a 3rd party staring in through a window on tip-toe, seeing and feeling it all second-hand, perhaps even slightly removed from that. I wasn’t made to sympathize with these characters, though I loved the fundamentals of Ellie’s narrative. She didn’t grab me, but most of the time, I didn’t mind watching her. I couldn’t tell if Smith was writing in this fashion deliberately or if he was just inexperienced with handling emotions as a writer. (I suppose a deeper foray into his works would answer this question for me definitively.) I realize that this novel was not meant to be the next great love saga—Marty and Ellie are not Rhett and Scarlett by any means—but their love affair, or rather their reactions to it, came off as unrealistic, not quite believable and definitely not emotive, possibly because that side of them was underdeveloped. Intellectual, I think is the word that I’m looking for. Their story line and the handling of it was intellectual, even when it wasn’t meant to be, and that didn’t grab me.

However, I must say that I am content with how this one ended. At various points in the novel, I hovered between giving de Vos 3.5 and 4 stars. Ultimately, I’m going with 3.5 because many of the novels I’ve given 4 or 5 stars truly moved me—or educated me in a way that will always stay with me—and this one was just shy of that. 3.5 stars ***

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published March 22nd 2016 by Ecco

       The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney did absolutely nothing for me. I had high hopes for this one going in—another brilliantly written cover flap did the trick—but my expectations were never met, and by mid-way, I stopped hoping and assuming that they eventually would be. In fact, this one almost didn’t get finished; sheer perseverance pushed me through.

        The Nest is about the Plumb siblings, four middle-agers whose lives are thrown into tumult when the eldest, Leo, gets himself into trouble yet again—drugs, a Porsche and a pretty young thing complete the cliché—and their mother nearly depletes “the nest,” their trust fund, which they are all expecting to inherit soon, to get him out of this bind. His siblings, Jack, Bea, and Melody are outraged and anxiety-filled, worrying about their personal financial situations that have escalated to the point of emergency because they assumed they’d have the nest to bail them out, and now it’s nearly gone. Leo and his siblings struggle to find a way out of the mess he started, and isn’t sure how to remedy, while dealing with the intricacies of their own lives.

The problem with this one is that this novel could’ve been written by anyone. I saw no particularly extraordinary skill, no ambition, no originality, no nothing. Even the endings were all hastily done, formulaic bow ties fit for day-time TV. In short, I was not impressed as a reader. The Nest fell so flat for me that there was nearly an audible splat sound ringing in my ears throughout the entire reading process. The writing was mediocre, at times hitting on pithy narrative prose that occurred so infrequently that I have to believe they were flukes, one-offs.

       “Maybe she would slip Melody some cash, enough for some Botox or a facial or something to brighten her pallor. She was the youngest and somehow the most faded, as if the Plumb DNA had thinned with each conception, strong and robust with Leo and each child after being—a little less.”

That was one of the better lines of this novel (in addition to the 9/11 nationalism sarcasm), but unfortunately it also sums up how I felt about this one—strong and robust packaging and selling of this one only for each chapter to impress me less and less. The characters here were so uninteresting, so unremarkable, that I could hardly keep them straight. They were all either blah, like Melody, or cliché—oh, the clichés here!

I can’t even really discuss the glaring rudimentary stereotypes running rampant in this one. There was the drunken, ice queen of a matriarch who dressed in a sexy robe for her daughter’s 12th birthday (one of the more interesting characters, whom we hardly saw, but the cliché smacked me in the face). Then there was Matilda Rodriguez, the naïve Hispanic girl who “called everyone Mami or Papi” despite their age—cliché, yawn—and Simone, the supposedly cool, urban, street smart black girl (honestly, already the shallow cliché in this novel’s setting) who says, “Tight” a lot. Tight? REALLY? Tight? What decade is this, please? This one was absolutely deserving of the eye-roll, that she would stake her novel on such underdeveloped outlines of overdone stereotypes (and that it would then be praised as great writing really confounded me). Then we shan’t forget the cliché of the gay sibling who wanted lots of random, casual sex in sleazy nightclubs (I literally forgot his name and had to look above to write it here, Jack) who marveled at his luck at dodging AIDS (really?), and the list actually does go on. There were so many clichés thrown into this one that it was like the literary equivalent of Scary Movie. This element in and of itself revealed that Sweeney is as out of touch with the real world as her characters are and that made the read unenjoyable—in fact, a chore. This element wasn’t nearly pushed far enough to be satire; this is really the world she wanted to paint, which would have been fine, possibly even funny, as a satire but nothing more than that.

The Nest also had too many superfluous characters and storylines! (I’m looking at you Robohook man, and the guy from the 9/11 towers). If you want to read about WASPy yacht problems (1st world problems that no one cares about other than the self-absorbed people experiencing them), endless whining about not receiving a large, undeserved amount of money and having to settle for a mere $50,000 each, and storylines that suffered because of the sheer number of them squeezed in here, you’ve come to the right place. I started to give this one 2 stars, because I finished it, but then realized that that was my own accomplishment, not this novel’s. 1 star. *

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Hardcover, 720 pages
Published March 10th 2015 by Doubleday

First of all, let me say that A Little Life was exactly what I’ve been looking for. This novel was so rich in raw, uninhibited emotion, in the true unveiling of life’s effervescence, horrors and humanity, that I didn’t feel that I was trudging through a thick read—though, believe me, it’s thick!—I felt that I was on a 40-year Hajj with these characters, a journey that, like real life, takes you over lofty and decadent highs then drags you through trough-like lows. It was the lows in A Little Life that made me literally cringe and turn away, re-read at times and stop reading at others just long enough to question what really is humanity?

The theme of lifelong friendship is obviously central to the novel, and I loved that the four focal characters were all male. To get the male perspective on contemporary brotherhood and solidarity was a breath of fresh air; I hardly ever get to experience a literary piece from the viewpoint of modern-day (non-white) men, so if that appeals to you, then this read will be a real treat. Likewise, on that note, I was greatly impressed with the way that Yanagihara handled race in this work, because she flipped the stereotype completely on its head. I remember a feeling of unanticipated surprise, of true and pure admiration of the author’s hand and voice for flipping the script on the typical literary formula.

A Little Life was brilliant in the way that it portrayed the capriciousness and uncertainty of college life through middle-age: the discovery and exploration of their sexuality, life goals, insecurities and the precariousness of their own self-images and the pursuit—often slow and unsure—of their own personal ambitions and aspirations. It all rang so true, so genuine.

     “These were days of self-fullment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble…surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.”

Yanagihara’s exploration of religion (Ambition and atheism…only here did you have to apologize for having faith in something other than yourself) and race (Race has always been a challenge for Malcolm, but their sophomore year, he hit upon what he considered a brilliant cop-out: he wasn’t black’ he was post-black…unfortunately, no one was convinced by this explanation, least of all JB, whom Malcom had begun to think of as not so much black but pre-black, as if blackness, like nirvana, was an idealized state that he was constantly striving to erupt into) was modern, realistic and enlightened. This work was full of eloquent, thoughtful and introspective narrative prose, but at the same time, Yanagihara did not hesitate to push the reader beyond their comfort level. Her descriptions of abuse and cruelty, suffering, addiction, fear, and the toll these all take on the human psyche—the way that they impact the human experience—were so vivid, so intensely thought-provoking and emotive.

However, I must admit that I did take a few issues with this one. For one, I was disappointed to not see a single chapter from Malcolm’s sole perspective in the entire piece. With this massive word count, there was certainly ample opportunity to do so. He started off being just as interesting a character as the others, questioning his future and his sexuality, feeling inferior to his sister and entitled while simultaneously, perhaps, feeling a bit embarrassed by his upbringing and entitlement. The groundwork was set for a rich character portrayal of him that could have easily rivaled JB’s and Willem’s, but in all 700+ pages we never heard a peep from his own voice. I also wished that Yanagihara had explored JB more. The chapter that was 100% from his perspective honestly resonates with me louder than any of the other chapters, even those rather disturbing chapters on Jude that are the talk of literary chats everywhere at the moment. I was truly gripped by his sense of terror and self-loathing, his sincere lack of control and, finally, that heart-wrenching scene towards the end of his chapter.

Honestly, I felt that Jude had too many chapters, that the entire novel revolved around him—and I get why it would—but there were several opportunities lost that could have been capitalized on better by the author. Also—gulp, I’m sorry to say—A Little Life could have stood up to a bit of a haircut too. Not a big chop, mind you, but a trim of at least 50 pages would’ve made the novel a less cumbersome read, particularly towards the end, the last few chapters. Chopping some of those arguably useless narrative passages away would have allowed for a feeling of truly running towards something, towards a climax deserving of these wonderful characters. Instead, the novel felt more like it sputtered out (no less heart-breakingly) quietly. In a way, I feel the Fabulous Four deserved better.

Even with all of this, I am truly changed having read this one and thankful that I took the time to sit down and really enjoy it. A Little Life has raised the bar so high for me, I can only hope that my next reads will stand up to the shadow that this tall order may cast over them. Yanagihara has gained herself a lifelong reader and an easy 5 stars. *****

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published June 26th 2014 by Penguin Press

“How suffocating it is to be loved that much.” 

Everything I Never Told You centers around the Lee family: James, the Chinese-American professor who lectures on the epitome of what was never attainable for him—true Americanism, Marilyn, the blond wife who’d always dreamed of being a doctor when female doctors were a rare phenomenon only to turn out just what her mother had hoped and what Marilyn had always wished to avoid, and their three children, Nathan, Lydia and Hannah. James and Marilyn focus all of their attention on Lydia who they are determined to mold into everything that they were never able to achieve themselves, creating a crushing pressure for her that comes from both sides. When she dies unexpectedly, the glue that holds them all together is no longer able to hold. As they try to learn what happened to her—and why—they come to realize that she was not the girl they thought she was. The reader is allowed to learn this before the family does, which creates a beautiful inside glimpse of a family crumbling.

       Everything I Never Told You is about just that: the subtle nuances and emotions that go unsaid, the familial tension behind closed doors that goes unnoticed, unexplored, and the way that our lineage and upbringing shape our lives, for better or for worse. Gripping in its portrayal of dreams deferred and hopes crushed, of coming of age in the 60s and 70s, of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) cruelties of the world and of the ignorance of those who would rather mock than understand, Everything was an exploration of the overwhelming pressure of a family’s love and expectations—both for themselves and for their children. Despite the fact that this one had a few moments of lethargy at the start, it all came together beautifully, and the last half or so of the novel I finished in one sitting. This novel, all told, was a bold and shattering glimpse into reality for all of the characters involved. It was the historical and ancestral short-fallings, misgivings and dreams unrealized that brought this one to a head in the most lovely way. It was chilling in its honest and straight-forward depiction of challenges with fitting in, with being oneself, all wrapped into beautiful little metaphors that were easy to hold…and easy to crush: a Betty Crocker cookbook, a white doctor’s coat, cowboys, a silver locket.

“Different” was the connective tissue here. The characters’ differences from those of the outside world and in the incongruousness of their perception of themselves versus what others saw were so well developed that the feeling of discomfort (both in their lives and in their minds) was palpable within these pages, creating a need to continue turning the pages. Ng portrayed their longing here brilliantly—longing to be someone else, to be free.

“Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn’t look like everyone else…you saw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers—Chinese—Japanese—look at these—and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear…and tried to forget about it. And you did, until it happened again.”

Ng was not forceful with her hand, but allowed those things unsaid, undone, unnoticed, to tell the story in its way of delicate nuances. The snatching off of a locket here, the touching of ones finger to tongue there. It was those subtleties that the reader had to catch, or they’d miss something integral. Characterized by lovely narrative prose, Ng’s MFA background stood out and was on full display in a way that showed spirit and depth. Mellifluous, introspective and refined, it dug into the very soul of what it means, what it must feel like, to be different. 5 stars. *****

 

 

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Hardcover, 302 pages
Published November 1st 2010 by Little, Brown and Company

Released to rave reviews and the full packaging monty of its publisher, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra took the NYT by storm in 2011, remaining there for months. And no wonder! This kamikaze of masterly writing, meticulous and thorough research, and humanizing hand of the author did a spectacular job of unmasking the woman behind the myth and debunking the lies we today call slander.
This is the biography of Queen Cleopatra VII Philopator (as the title implies) but it is done unlike any other. (PLEASE) remove the images of Liz Taylor in near-drag from your mind as you embark on this one, for this work is a truly stunning portrayal of the woman behind the parable. This biography delves into her marriages, her political decisions, her rise and her downfall. The flap said it all. In fact, it was the dazzling summary in the book flap that drew me in (rather than the razzle dazzle of Schiff’s renowned name on the cover and spine):
“Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons…In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order, a generation before the birth of Christ.”

Honestly, I couldn’t have summed this one up better myself (and whoever wrote that flap summary, in its entirety, should be commended themselves).
This biography, mind you, was released before the (in my opinion) disastrous exposé that Schiff did on The Witches, back when I’d never heard of this Pulitzer Prize winner and my mind was free of all bias for what those pages might hold, for how her style of writing would or would not stimulate and intrigue me. So, I was delighted to find that even the very first line drew me in with a skill rivaling the best in fiction, and her knack for weaving a story out of the hard research and history lost—rather than numbing the reader’s mind with dull and tiresome fact after fact—kept me reading, and hooked.
“Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all.”
Thus go the very first two lines of this biographical tour de force. Schiff weaves the tale in three dimensions. The world—Cleopatra’s world—that she depicts is rich with detail, color, noise. Intrigue, scandal, but, best of all, skillful and methodical stripping away of the myths that surround the legend. Page by page, Schiff untangles the Queen from the lies that have torn her down and muddied her name and her legacy, her intelligence and her political savvy. She dissects the hard decisions made in the name of sovereignty and survival that have painted Cleopatra both the witch and the harlot for centuries, truly, millennia—detailing the actions that made the Queen while giving the reader the perspective of the Queen who made the actions.
No surprise that the same methods used to villainize women both today and historically were used to dismantle the legacy of a great ruler of that era; indeed, the last ruler of that era. But Schiff’s Cleopatra did not cower behind the wall of generations of myth and salaciousness. Everything from her genealogy and skin tone (about as disputed as that of Christ himself’s) to education and precarious upbringing were explored, and Schiff’s work did a masterly job of giving the reader a view of Cleopatra’s life from a thrilling perch, as if right on her shoulder the entire time.
Because of this work, I will most certainly give Schiff’s writing another chance. This page turner (I literally finished half of it in one sitting) made me laugh with the satirical jabs that Schiff managed to aim at the lies surround her muse. It brought me to tears—yes, real ones!—at the climactic conclusion that left a queen and her lover dead and an era at an end. And the clever style of writing itself was witty, intellectual, adroit and entertaining to say the least. My copy was left full of highlighted passages and marginal notes; the best kind of read, if you ask me. Five stars *****