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Ursula K. LeGuin – Lavinia

June 30, 2010

65. Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin (2008)

Length: 280 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 05 June 2010
Finished: 11 June 2010

Where did it come from? Bought at the library booksale.
Why do I have it? In a review of Jo Graham’s Black Ships, S. S. at Calico Reaction thought it wasn’t as good as Lavinia. I loved Black Ships, so I wanted to see how it compared.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 05 June 2010

Aeneas’s wife
gets to tell her side of the
story, at long last.

Summary: In The Aeneid, Aeneas arrives in what will one day be known as Italy, and marries the King’s daughter, Lavinia, thus founding the line that will one day lead to the Roman empire. In this book, LeGuin gives us the story from Lavinia’s point of view: a young girl who grew up in the peace that her father had created among the warring tribes. A girl with a mother who is more than half-mad, whose ambition seeks for her daughter to marry her powerful yet arrogant cousin Turnus. A girl who does not want to marry, but who is told by oracles and omens that she must wed a foreigner, and that her doing so will cause a deadly war. A girl who knows that her husband is fated to live for only a few years, leaving her behind forever. A girl who is silent in Virgil’s poem, but who has her own story to tell, and who has finally reclaimed her voice.

Review: I picked up Lavinia due to its similarities with Jo Graham’s Black Ships, which I absolutely loved. Both are retellings of part of The Aeneid (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I have not read) from a minor character’s (and woman’s) point of view. Lavinia picks up more or less where Black Ships leaves off, with Aeneas’s arrival in Italy. But, while they’re obviously very similar in story and in perspective, there was a definite difference in my reaction; while Black Ships took my breath away, I was never particularly captivated by Lavinia.

That’s not to say that Lavinia was a bad read. In fact, I did quite enjoy both the early sections of the book – which describe Lavinia’s childhood, and gave me an excellent sense for the structure of life in ancient Italy – and the later sections of the book, in which Lavinia is struggling against her knowledge of her husband’s untimely yet fated death. I also thought that using Virgil’s ghost as the mouthpiece of prophecy was an interesting touch that gave the story an extra dimension of musing on fate and knowledge and coincidence and causality, although some of the parts in which Lavinia spends time ruminating about whether she’s even real or just a creation of “the poet” were a little bit *too* meta for my tastes.

However, I never really connected with the characters as much as I would have liked, nor did I really feel any sense of urgency about the story (with the exception of the part immediately preceding Aeneas’s death, as I mentioned.) Particularly in the middle section of the book, and particularly during LeGuin’s description of the battles that followed Lavinia’s betrothal to Aeneas, I found my attention wandering. There’s a lot of “so-and-so slew so-and-so”, but since none of the minor characters were developed much beyond a name, I didn’t particularly care. Overall, while the book was for the most part well done, did have enough interesting parts to keep me reading, I didn’t find much to get really excited about, either. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: While I didn’t *love* it, I liked it well enough, and it’s a relatively easy read, so if you like myths, legends, and other classic stories retold from a woman’s point of view (a la The Mists of Avalon), or if you’re interested in pre-Roman Italy, then I’d recommend giving Lavinia a chance.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Age 30+ A Lifetime of Books, The Boston Bibliophile, Calico Reaction, Ooh . . . Books!, Page 247, Things Mean a Lot
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: I went to the salt beds by the mouth of the river, in the May of my nineteenth year, to get salt for the sacred meal.

Quotes: “Men call women faithless, changeable, and though they say it in jealousy of their own ever-threatened sexual honor, there is some truth in it. We can change our life, our being; no matter what our will is, we are changed. As the moon changes yet is one, so we are virgin, wife, mother, grandmother. For all their restlessness, men are who they are; once they put on the man’s toga they will not change again; so they make a virtue of that rigidity and resist whatever might soften it and set them free.” (p. 184)

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 26: “The pagus where we pagans live is the pattern of the farmers’ fields, outlined by the paths between the fields.” – a country district or a community within a larger polity.
  • p. 27: “Within that enclosure the sense of the numen, the presence and power of the sacred, was strong and strange.” – divine power or spirit; a deity, esp. one presiding locally or believed to inhabit a particular object.
  • p. 30: “I kept the storerooms of the king’s house: that was my duty as the king’s daughter, the camilla, the novice.” – a noble youth attending at sacrifices.
  • p. 36: “I scattered salsamola on the altar, slept on the old fleeces of other sacrifices, and sought no vision or guidance.” – sacred cakes of salt and grain.
  • p. 182: “Around the west and south sides of the hill, sloping down more gently, was a ditch and rampart; higher up, a wooden palisade showed where the city wall of tufa rock would be built.” – a porous limestone formed from calcium carbonate deposited by springs or the like.
9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2010 6:20 am

    Oh, you should read the Aeneid. It’s excellent. There’s this one bit when Aeneas visits the underworld – well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Just, some awesome stuff happens. Read the Aeneid! Epic poetry FTW!

    • July 6, 2010 9:49 am

      Jenny – My library has the Robert Fitzgerald translation in audiobook form, which I think would be a pretty painless way to go about it, even though it is apparently abridged. I still might get it as at least an introduction to the real thing.

  2. June 30, 2010 8:16 am

    I have yet to read LeGuin, but I did pick up Gifts recently, so hopefully I will enjoy that.

    • June 30, 2010 10:15 am

      I feel the best place to start with Le Guin is The Left Hand of Darkness, so if Gifts doesn’t pan out, I’d give her another try with that.

    • July 6, 2010 9:50 am

      Vivienne – I agree with Omni, my first LeGuin was The Left Hand of Darkness, and I thought it was great.

  3. June 30, 2010 9:54 am

    I wonder if reading the 2 books back to back affected how you reacted to this one. It sounds interesting to me.

    • July 6, 2010 9:51 am

      bermudaonion – They weren’t exactly back-to-back; I read Black Ships in 2008. Still, if I’d read them in the opposite order, it might well have affected how I perceived each one.

  4. June 30, 2010 10:14 am

    This is on my list, and since I love Le Guin, I’m going to go for it- but I think I’ll add Black Ships to the list.

    • July 6, 2010 9:52 am

      Omni – As a LeGuin fan, I’ll be interested to see how you think they stack up!

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