Monday, June 13, 2011
Book Review: Cleopatra Confesses, by Carolyn Meyer (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2011)
Carolyn Meyer is one of our most prolific contemporary authors of historical fiction for young people, and has tackled novelizations of the lives of many famous women from history including Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth I, Mary Tudor, and Anne Boleyn. In her newest young adult novel, she turns her pen (or computer?) to one of the most celebrated women in history, Cleopatra.
As in the other books in her Young Royals series, Meyer concentrates on Cleopatra's teen years, as the queen reminisces about her life in a diary-like format with very brief chapters. As the book opens, Cleopatra is 10 years old, and clearly the favorite daughter of King Ptolemy XII. Young Cleopatra is surrounded by intrigue at court, particularly from her two ambitious and jealous older sisters, yet secretly dreams of one day becoming a great ruler of Egypt.
Meyer portrays Cleopatra as a highly intelligent young woman, with a gift and passion for learning, especially for languages, and compassion for her future subjects. Despite her wealth and privilege, she enjoys going out in disguise among the common people, "not only to escape the dull routine of my life in the palace but also to savor the exciting sights and sounds of the city." Cleopatra is eager to learn everything she can about politics; her beloved father has just come back from Rome, and speaks candidly to Cleopatra about his meetings with the powerful Roman triumverate, including the ambitious Julius Caesar. Soon the royal entourage embarks on a journey down the fabled Nile river, traveling in great luxury, as Cleopatra observes, amidst the great poverty of their subjects. The river is filled with treacherous crocodiles, and the boats with equally treacherous courtiers. As she visits temples and the famed pyramids of Giza with her father, Cleopatra is careful to hide her lofty ambitions from her sisters, who she realizes would stop at nothing to get rid of her if they felt she was a threat.
The voyage down the Nile serves as a clever way to incorporate the many sights and sounds of Egypt into the narrative, as we experience along with Cleopatra the glories of her realm. Meyer weaves in many details about Egyptian society at the time, including the royals' love of beautiful clothes and jewelry, their games, pets (monkeys and baboons) meals and customs (such as wearing a fake beard at ceremonial appearances). On the voyage, Cleopatra befriends a young dancer in the royal harem, Charmion, who teaches Cleopatra how to dance. Perhaps this dancing skill is incorporated to establish part of Cleopatra's seductive charm later in her life.
When political turmoil forces Cleopatra's father to go into exile, he promises her that they will one day rule Egypt together. With his departure, who can Cleopatra trust? Now eleven years old, she is not old enough to rule. Her duty, she realizes, is just to survive, with treachery all around her.
When her father returns several years later, he names Cleopatra as queen, but at her father's death, she must marry her brother, according to Egyptian custom. Since her brother was only 10 years old, Meyer takes pains to point out that Ptolemy XIII "will be my husband in name only." Now 18 years old, Cleopatra and her brother travel down the Nile to Memphis and then to Thebes for elaborate coronation ceremonies. Although young, Cleopatra is confident in her abilities but dreams of having a man by her side who could be a real companion to her.
In this book Cleopatra is introduced to both her famous Roman lovers: Marcus Antonius, a handsome Roman cavalry commander whom she is attracted to immediately, and also Julius Caesar, whom she meets after being smuggled into the palace wrapped in a rug. Caesar becomes her lover, although the book does not include any explicit sex scenes. Meyer's narrative basically concludes when Caesar leaves his lover Cleopatra, now pregnant with his child, and Egypt to return to Rome; a brief epilogue, set 17 years later, allows Cleopatra to tell about the end of her life, including the famous suicide by poisonous snake.
The novel's extensive back matter includes an essay on Cleopatra in history, a note from the author, bibliography, a selection of websites, a timeline, a glossary of Egyptian gods and goddesses mentioned in the text, and an explanation of the Egyptian calendar.
I found this to be a very enjoyable introduction to Cleopatra for tween and teen readers; the ending, however, felt a little abrupt because of skipping over quite a few years of her life to get to the infamous suicide at the end. However, this format is also perhaps dictated by Meyer's desire to concentrate the narrative on Cleopatra's teenage years. Also, I would have liked to learn more about her romantic life with Caesar. What attracted her to this powerful man who was so much older than she was? What was their relationship like? Nonetheless, Meyer has created in this novel a compelling portrait of the young years of a great figure in history, effectively evoking the sights and sounds of ancient Egypt.
Cleopatra Rules!, by Vicky Alvear Schecter (Boyds Mills, 2010), is a new biography aimed squarely at teens. Those teens looking for a more in-depth treatment of the subject may enjoy reading the adult best-seller, Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacey Schiff, (Little Brown, 2010).
Also, young adult fans may be interested in reading another new novel set at this time, Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Schecter, which will be released in August, and centers on Cleopatra's daughter.
Disclosure: ARC provided by publisher.