Michelle Moran's newest historical novel, Cleopatra's Daughter, was one of those rare books that completely swept me out of my 21st-century life into another place and time. Reading it was like hopping into a time machine for a guided tour of Octavian's Rome. The teeming, dynamic city was so vividly and realistically portrayed, I felt as though I were walking the streets with the characters.
Because Moran was so good at immersing me in ancient Rome, I am finding this a difficult novel to review. After I put it down and thought back over the story, more and more aspects of it bothered me. The book has some flaws. I didn't mind them so much when lost in Moran's Rome but couldn't help thinking about them after finishing the novel.
Cleopatra's Daughter follows the children of Cleopatra and Marc Antony across the Mediterranean after Caesar Octavian (later known as Augustus) defeats their parents and adds Egypt to his sprawling empire. Much of the story concerns Selene and her twin brother, Alexander, coming of age and learning to survive in a culture very different from their own. Rome is portrayed through the eyes of Selene, the narrator, as a chaotic, debauched, often frightening place, yet vibrant and swelling with confidence and pride in its own accomplishments.
Although the twins are taken into the household of Octavia, Caesar's sister, and treated as guests, they remain painfully aware they live only at Octavian's whim, and he will destroy them without a thought if he perceives them as threats to Rome. The figure of Octavian -- brooding, superstitious, possessing more brains than brawn -- loomed over the entire novel, not only as the person who ultimately controlled Selene and Alexander's fates, but as the one man who, with political acumen and ruthlessness, might be able to hold the Roman empire together.
Yet Selene and her brother experience kindness and friendship from some of the members of Octavian's large, extended family, including Octavia's son, Marcellus, and Octavian's daughter, Julia, who are close to the twins in age. With Marcellus and Julia, the twins attend school, go shopping, watch chariot races and enjoy the summer holidays at Octavian's villa on Capri. Vitruvius, Octavian's architect, even teaches Selene how to design buildings after seeing her impressive sketches of Alexandria, her native city.
Because she lost her own home and parents, Selene sympathizes with the plight of the downtrodden, especially the slaves brought from conquered countries who make up one-third of Rome's population. She eagerly follows news of the Red Eagle, an unknown rebel who posts anti-slavery messages on the doors of temples and shops. When the messages stir unrest, suspicion falls on members of Octavian's inner circle, as it is obvious from the notices the Red Eagle is an educated person with access to the richest areas of the city.
Moran's Rome was not sugar-coated; she unflinchingly depicted the sufferings of slaves and the poor and the cruelties of the gladiatorial games enjoyed by ordinary Romans as entertainment. Life in Rome certainly typified the phrase "nasty, brutish and short." In fact, I felt a bit beaten about the head by all the ugly, unsavory aspects of everyday life. Moran could have toned it down a bit and still gotten her point across.
Other issues I had with the novel concerned Selene's love life. I grew impatient with her teenage mooning after Marcellus (who she knew from the start was promised in marriage to Julia). Selene seemed too mature and intelligent a character to fall for a man with so little in common with her. (Marcellus's all-consuming interest was betting on chariot races.) Selene finally realized which man truly deserved her love and loyalty, but the development of their relationship was rushed and not entirely convincing. The story lost a lot of steam two-thirds of the way through. Moran could have spent more time in the last 100 pages on Selene's discovering who really captured her heart, rather than having her feeling sorry for herself because of Marcellus's wedding.
I also had problems with the resolution to the mystery of the Red Eagle's identity. The rebel turned out to be a person I had a hard time believing would put Caesar or his family at risk. (The Red Eagle's messages provoked violence and even an assassination attempt.)
I loved Moran's depiction of ancient Rome, its culture and its people so much, I was willing to forgive these flaws while I was reading. She must have done a staggering amount of research, but I never felt pulled out of the story by an author showing off her knowledge of the period. The first half of the book was nearly perfect, but the second half needed tightening and a more focused plot. Despite this novel's flaws, Moran is definitely a writer to watch, and I'll be sure to read her other books.
My grade: B-