Book Review: The Lost Castle

Lost CastleIn The Lost Castle by Kristy Cambron, Ellie Carver’s Grandma Vi had raised her since her parents’ deaths when she was a child. Now her grandmother was in a care facility suffering the ravages of Alzheimer’s, often not even knowing who Ellie was.  But one particular day, her grandmother seemed especially agitated and could hardly keep herself from the window. While Ellie gently attempted distraction, her grandmother pulled out a book of The Sleeping Beauty in French. While wondering  why her grandmother had such a book in French and flipping through the pages, an old photo fell out. The picture was WWII-era vintage of a young woman sitting on a stone wall smilingly staring up at a young man who was definitely not Ellie’ grandfather. Ellie learned that there was a castle called The Sleeping Beauty in France, and Vi was supposed to have met this man at the castle to tell him whether or not she would marry him.

These revelations sent Ellie to the Loire Valley in France, uncovering a story that spanned hundreds of years.

In 1789, Aveline Sainte-Moreau was much more interested in the politics and current events of the day than a lady of her station should have been. Though she did not condone all the actions of the disenfranchised poor, she had compassion on them and helped as she could. To keep her in her place and divert her attention, her father arranged her marriage with a man she had never met. On the night of her debut and the official announcement of her engagement at her fiance’s home, the castle was attacked. While the castle crumbled and burned, Aveline was rescued, but not before being scarred by the flames. Her rescuers had to keep her hidden while she recovered: unrest had been fomenting into revolution, and the nobility in general was in danger.

In 1944, Viola Hart was a linguist caught in France, having escaped the Nazis. Taking refuge in a chapel, she was discovered by a neighboring vigneron, Julien, who secreted her to his family’s home. Eventually she learned he was part of the French Resistance, and her skills would be valuable. Having no way to safely get home, she stayed to help. In their preparations, they painted a large red V on the walls of a deserted castle.

When Ellie came to the Loire Valley, she wanted to search for the castle wall where her grandmother’s picture had been taken. She was distressed to learn that the castle grounds were closed to the public. Her host and tour guide, Quinn, was reluctant to push any further into the mystery, wanting to respect the castle owner’s wishes. But at Ellie’s  and his own grandfather Titus’s insistence, Quinn took Ellie where she needed to go and helped her unravel the clues. She learned that the castle’s nickname, The Sleeping Beauty, came from a legend of a member of the nobility hundreds of years before who seemed to disappear in the area. As Ellie uncovered more of her grandmother’s past, she unlocked more of her own story as well.

My thoughts:

I loved the three women’s stories and how Kristy wove them together. I loved the strength of each character in her circumstances. I enjoyed some of the touches in each timeline: the castle itself, a brooch passed down to each woman, a fox that lives in the woods and visits the castle grounds, the various shades of lavender and purple, from Aveline’s shawl and love of violets to Grandma Vi’s cardigan. The faith element is subtle but steady.

And isn’t that cover gorgeous?

One quote that encapsulates the book’s theme:

Titus says the land is a witness of the generations who have come before. That it stands resolute. It’s the same yesterday. Today. And who knows what tomorrow will look like. He likens it to God’s influence over creation. That He’s immovable. Steady. Watching from a distance, yet ever involved. A bit like your lost castle, hmm? (p. 244).

I’ve read many books with two timelines: this is the second in recent months that had three. It wasn’t confusing to keep up with them, as each setting with its characters was distinct. The only confusion within a timeline came when a new chapter opened at a time earlier than where we had last left those particular characters – a flashback within a given timeline. But it only took a few moments to get oriented.

With elements of mystery, the fairy-tale quality of Aveline’s story in particular, historical elements, and above all a lovely story and testimony of God’s faithfulness, Kristy has another winner here. So far I have never been disappointed with any of her books, and I hope she writes many more!

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Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

GuernseyIn the novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, Juliet Ashton had begun writing a lighthearted newspaper column during WWII under the name Izzy Bickertstaff. Her editors thought the country needed a bit of humor and uplift. After the war, the columns were collected and published as a book, making Juliet and her publishers a lot of money.

But now the war is over, and Juliet wants to write something more meaningful under her own name. She’s not sure what, though, until she receives a note from someone on Guernsey named Dawsey who had somehow ended up with a book she had given away about Charles Lamb. During WWII, Guernsey and surrounding Channel islands were occupied by the Germans. Most of the children were evacuated off the island, and for five years the island didn’t have contact with the outside world. As the island had been isolated during the war and no booksellers had come back yet, Dawsey can’t find other books by or about Lamb, and he  wonders if she might have access to some. In their correspondence, he mentions the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Understandably curious, Juliet asks to know more about the society. It was invented one night when a few neighbors out after curfew were stopped and questioned by a guard (why they were out was another interesting story). One of them made up on the spot the literary society that they had supposedly just come from and even mentioned a German book. Thankfully the guard was a literary type and let them go. But now they had to implement such a society to avoid suspicion, so they began to meet regularly to discuss books they were reading. Some of the members were not avid readers, but they found at least one book to read and talk about.

The more Juliet hears, the more she feels maybe this is what she needs to write about. The book is made of of correspondence mostly between Juliet and her publisher, a few friends, and the various members of the society.

Some of their stories are comical, some are poignant, others are quite sad. Some were helped by the books they read; others were helped more by the camaraderie and community. And a fair bit of drama occurs in Juliet’s life as well, and her life changes in several ways she could not have predicted.

It seemed like everyone was talking about this book a few years ago, and I had always intended to read it “someday.” When I saw a film was being made of the book, I decided now was the time. I have not seen the film yet, but I knew I wanted to read the book first.

Epistolary novels are not my favorite form of story, but it works for this novel. You would have thought that it would be hard to “show rather than tell” through letters, which are a way of telling. But Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece, Annie Barrows, do this masterfully.

Unfortunately there is a smattering of bad words, including the Lord’s name taken in vain. There are no sexual scenes, but one woman has a baby out of wedlock, a couple of men are characterized as homosexual, and mention is made of women who fraternize with the Germans sexually.

But the characters are charming, and I love the way the story unfolds. I hated to see the story come to an end.

I’ve read much WWII fiction, but nothing that I can recall from this period of recovery just after the war. Amid the joy and relief of the war ending and the Germans retreating, there were still shortages, missing people who had been sent off to camps, buildings defaced or marred by Germans who had taken them over, not to mention the emotional trauma many carried with them for a long while afterward.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by a number of people. At first it was a little hard to distinguish between some of the characters, but after a while I got them straight. I ordered the book as well, and it contains a wonderful afterword by Annie Barrows. Most of the book was written by Mary Ann Shaffer, but her health began to fail during the rewrites, and she asked Annie to step in. Evidently Mary Ann had always been a wonderful storyteller, and the family was so pleased that her work was received so well.

I’ll close with a few of my favorite quotes:

That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.

Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.

All my life I thought that the story was over when the hero and heroine were safely engaged — after all, what’s good enough for Jane Austen ought to be good enough for anyone. But it’s a lie. The story is about to begin, and every day will be a new piece of the plot.

Because there is nothing I would rather do than rummage through bookshops, I went at once to Hastings & Sons Bookshop upon receiving your letter. I have gone to them for years, always finding the one book I wanted – and then three more I hadn’t known I wanted.

Your questions regarding that gentleman are very delicate, very subtle, very much like being smacked in the head with a mallet…it’s a tuba among the flutes.

Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.

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Book Review: Before We Were Yours

Truth is stranger than fiction, the saying goes. It is also more heartbreaking. One of the saddest and strangest situations in history is the story of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society she operated. Georgia would abduct poor children by various illegal means: outright kidnapping, taking children born to unwed mothers for “medical care” and then telling the mothers their babies died; tricking parents into signing their children over to the home, and others. Policemen, family court judges, a crime boss, and others were a part of Tann’s network. The children they obtained would be adopted out to unsuspecting couples or sometimes sold to high-profile, wealthy families. Records were often destroyed or falsified. Even though Tann thought the children would be better off in their new situations, ultimately her enterprise was a money-making scheme. Tann died while she and the home were investigated, but before she could be brought to justice.

Before we were yoursLisa Wingate sets her novel Before We Were Yours in these circumstances.

Avery Stafford is a senator’s daughter being groomed to take his place. On a trip with her father to a nursing home, a resident pauses before Avery, seems to recognize her, and calls her “Fern.” An aide hustles the woman away, chalking the incident up to dementia. But the woman made off with Avery’s heirloom bracelet, and when Avery goes back to the woman’s room to retrieve it, she sees a framed photograph of a woman who looks remarkably like Avery’s grandmother. Conversations with the resident, May, lead Avery to look into her grandmother’s journals. Every scrap of information uncovered produces more questions. Avery isn’t sure what she will ultimately find or what the consequences will be, but she feels compelled to know the truth. And the process causes Avery to question whether she is living a “role” in life set out for her by others.

May’s story is told in flashbacks. She was born Rill Foss, the oldest of five children who lived with their parents on a houseboat. When Rill’s mother goes into hard labor, the midwife insists that she be taken to the hospital. While Rill’s parents are gone, a policeman comes to pick up the children, saying he will take them to see their parents. Instead, he takes them to a woman waiting in a nearby car, who whisks them away to a children’s home.

Children in the home are neglected, not well fed, and abused. But when potential adoptive parents come, the children are dressed up and threatened to be on their best behavior. One by one Rill’s siblings disappear, but when she protests or tries to thwart their removal, she is punished and her remaining siblings threatened.

Even though May’s history is heart-rending, ultimately the book ends redemptively and hopefully.

Lisa’s scenes on the river are so real, I could almost see and smell and feel the surroundings. I ached with May through her story and the ultimate hard choice she had to make, and rejoiced at how things wrapped up for her. And I enjoyed Avery’s story as well.

A very well-written, excellent book.

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Book Review: Mozart’s Sister

Mozart's Sister Mozart’s Sister by Nancy Moser tells the story of Maria Anna Mozart, known as Nannerl, Mozart’s older sister by four and a half years. The two of them were the only surviving children of seven, the other five having died in infancy. When their father started giving Nannerl lessons on the harpsichord, Wolfgang, then three, wanted to learn, too, to be like his sister. He picked it up quickly, as well as other instruments, and was composing by age five, completing his first symphony by age eight. Their father took them on tours from their native Salzburg to various royal courts and other venues in European cities like Munich, Vienna, Paris, London, Zurich, and others as the Wunderkind – Miracle Children. Their father, Leopold, even lied about their ages, making them out to be even younger than they were so as to play up the “Wunder” even more. Nannerl received top billing at first and was well-known for her playing, but “Wolfie” seemed even more a prodigy, being so much younger, and eventually most of the attention went to him.

Leopold was a composer, violinist, teacher, and finally the assistant director of music (Kapellmeister) for the archbishop of Salzburg. He eventually laid aside his own composing and performing and poured himself into promoting the children’s talent, then just Wolfie’s, then seeking out a position for Wolfgang. They made money on the tours, but Leopold was only paid for his position when he was actually there is Salzberg, understandably, and he almost lost his position due to so much time away. Thus there was always a tension between what they wanted to do and the need for finances.

The story is told from Nannerl’s point of view and begins with the various experiences with travels and concerts, delighting to play, interactions with royalty, expectations to play dressed up as little adults with adult-looking clothing and massive powdered wigs. Both she and Wolfie became seriously ill with smallpox, and once he had rheumatic fever.

Their parents encouraged Wolfie’s composing but discouraged Nannerl’s on the grounds that it was hard enough for men to get music accepted and published; for women it was considered impossible. Wolfie was groomed for a musical career but Nannerl was expected to lay all of that aside to marry and bear children. When she was of marriageable age,  Leopold and Wolfgang went on tours together, leaving the women behind.

When Nannerl fell in love, she was not allowed to marry the man of her choosing, but there’s no evidence to explain why. Some sources, according to Wikipedia, think Leopold did not allow it. Nancy portrays it as the archbishop, who employed Nannerl’s intended and from whom they had to receive permission, denying it as part of his adversarial relationship with Leopold. Whatever the reason, the two remained close friends.

Wolfgang, though a genius musically, seemed egocentric, lacking in common sense, and unwise in money matters. The author played up the tension she thought Nannerl felt as the dutiful, obedient daughter whose life did not turn out as she wanted it to, even though she did everything “right,” as opposed to Wolfie, who was irresponsible and self-willed, yet seemed to get everything he wanted, including marrying the girl his father did not at first approve of. Yet, whereas a number of modern people seem to leave it as “poor, Nannerl, born in the wrong time period and kept down by the oppressive customs of the times,” from the brief bit of reading I have done online since finishing the book, Nancy portrays her as having to wrestle through all those disappointments while maintaining her love for family and coming to a place of acceptance and even finding her own place of worth, even though it was not what she originally planned.

A few quotes:

To Papa, getting Wolfie back in Salzburg, safely ensconced in a salaried position, would save our family’s finances. I couldn’t see that he was wrong in this, but I knew keeping Wolfie in such a position would be like trying to cage a hummingbird.

Having no musical challenge—as was the case in Salzburg—sapped his life breath and made him suffocate for lack of creative air.

If only Wolfie didn’t have to think about money but could concentrate on creating and performing for the sheer joy of it. If only we all could do what we wanted to do.

Wolfie had to adapt the music to the limitations and egos of the singers, which was both frustrating and time-consuming.

“Will that boy ever understand the world does not revolve around him?” I did not mention Papa’s part in creating that belief.

A few small criticisms:

At the end the author has an extended list of what was fact, based on historical records and family letters, and what was fiction based on the best information she had. A lot of Nannerl’s inward wrestlings were based on what the author would have felt in her position or what she “felt sure” Nannerl felt, but I think she may have overdone it a bit. Nannerl seemed a bit whiny at times in the first half of the book.

The use of modern phrases – like “hard for me to wrap my mind around” something, “It seemed that Wolfie was settling,” “purple prose” – seemed jarringly out of place in a historical context.

“All musicians feel this bond with the Divine.” I wasn’t sure how that was meant. Feeling God working in and through them – that’s fine and I can understand that. But if it’s meant to convey a “spark of Divinity” in the individual, I would disagree. I think from what I have read of the author that she would mean the former, but the statement was vague enough to make one wonder.

Otherwise, I very much enjoyed learning about the Mozarts and appreciated the author’s encouragement to “Take Nannerl’s story as an impetus to look at your own life and make it the most it can be. You too have a unique, God-given purpose. The trick is to find out what it is.”

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carol’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Washington’s Lady

Washington's Lady Washington’s Lady by Nancy Moser is a fictionalized biography of Martha Washington, wife of the U.S.A.’s first president.

The story opens with Martha at age 26 having just lost her husband of seven years, preceded by the deaths of two children. One of her two remaining children was sick with the same illness that took her husband. Despite her grief, she had to deal with the affairs of their plantation, including the complications of her husband’s neglect to leave a will.

Because she was “the wealthiest widow in Virginia,” “expected to remarry in a timely fashion,” it wasn’t long before a number of suitors sought her hand. No one interested her, however, until she met Colonel Washington. They conversed easily and were drawn to each other, eventually marrying. George tried to help her sort out the issues at her plantation, but eventually they moved to his smaller estate at Mount Vernon.

Trouble was stirring, however, with “Mother England.” Ludicrous laws and taxes, low quality goods sold to colonists at inflated prices, and a number of other issues were moving the populace from dissatisfaction to revolt. George left Mount Vernon as a representative, but eventually became the leader of the armed forces, not returning home for six years.

The story is told from Martha’s point of view, so we hear of battles through letters and occasional visits Martha made to wherever the troops were camping. She put herself to good use, sewing and repairing uniforms, organizing sewing circles to do the same, and visiting the men. Once she and the family had to flee Mt. Vernon as British forces approached, but a storm kept the enemy back. Two schemes to kidnap her failed. Other times newspapers spread lies, such as one stating that she was loyal to Britain.

At one point, overwhelmed by the suffering of the men and the lack of food, clothing and supplies for them at Valley Forge, she lamented that she could not do more. But she realized “the fate of many men depended on the fate of this one. And this one I could help.”

As the conflict drew to a close, many realized the revolution was all for nothing if the fledgling country could not get off to a good start, so talks began as to how best to achieve that. The result was George’s being elected president, not something he wanted at first. He longed for nothing more than to go home and be with his family and get his neglected house in order. But many felt that, as he had unified an army of untrained disparate individuals, he was the best to try to do the same with the thirteen colonies.

Martha was not pleased. All she wanted was for both of them to go home, too. Plus there was nothing for her to do as the president’s wife. She couldn’t even take a walk with her husband without being mobbed, the price of fame neither of them wanted. Perhaps because of all this, the book skips ten years over the time of George’s presidency to the last day of his life, then sums up the couple of years that Martha survived him.

Like most people, Martha had a mixture of qualities. She was unpretentious, strong, feisty, practical, capable in many respects. She had a constant stream of visitors and enjoyed hospitality until it became almost constant as they became more well known. She was also a self-proclaimed worrier. Her one main weakness was her son, Jacky. Perhaps because her husband and other children all passed away, and this son had been dangerously ill, plus for reasons unknown she and George were not able to have their own children, she was over-protective of him, and not only did she not discipline him, she did not let George do so, either. Jacky ran into all kind of trouble as a teenager and young man, seemed to settle down somewhat when he married, but then went back to his undisciplined, self-willed ways later on, and died leaving a wife and four children, the youngest two of whom George and Martha took in. Martha blamed herself, but then she repeated the very same mistakes with her one grandson while being strict with her granddaughters.

After George’s death, she destroyed all but a couple of their letters, perhaps to keep at least that part of their private lives from public view, understandably.

I also enjoyed the author’s several pages at the end explaining her interest in Martha and what things were made up or compiled and what things were real. Conversations, of course, needed imagination to recreate, but she based the story on as much fact as she could discover.

Besides learning more about Martha and George, it was also neat to see glimpses of other historical figures as well and to get the feel of those times. This was a fascinating and enjoyable book.

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Book Review: The Messenger

messengerThe Messenger by Siri Mitchell is set in Philadelphia in the late 1770s. The British occupied the area and made themselves at home, taking over citizens’ houses or pulling down their fences or shutters for fire wood. Some welcomed them, some hated them, some just tried to deal with the situation until it was over.

Hannah Sunderland’s Quaker family steadfastly refused to take sides, but that didn’t protect them when an officer wanted their home as well. While not welcoming British rule, they felt it was wrong to fight against it, and when rebels were captured and put in prison, they felt that helping them would interfere with God’s discipline of their rebellion.

Hannah was fine with that – until her own twin brother joined the rebels due to injustices he saw the British commit. When he landed in prison, she tried to find a way to visit him and bring him food secretly.

Jeremiah Jones, a tavern keeper, lost his arm when fighting for the British in the French and Indian war due to the surgeon’s taking a British officer before him, resulting in his injured arm becoming beyond repair and having to be amputated. Embittered, he turned against the British and that officer in particular, but secretly. British soldiers frequented his establishment, allowing him to hear bits of information he could pass on the the rebels. But when one of his spies bowed out, he had to find someone to take his place. As he noticed Hannah walking by the jail, he decided to offer to help her get a pass inside through his contacts if she would take a message for him to a colonial officer there.

Thus began an uneasy liaison. Jeremiah had little respect for Quakers and what he felt was their self-righteousness. Hannah exasperated him with her refusal to lie or be deceptive. She, in turn, did not think much of him or his profession. But they needed each other.

This novel seemed to me a little slow to get going, with Hannah and Jeremiah constantly bickering over every little thing. But the farther along it went, the more interesting and engaging it became. I enjoyed the author’s notes at the end detailing what was real and what was fictional in the novel and marveling at how she wove them together.

I had not know much about Quakers before this except that they were pacifists, said “thee” and “thou,” and dressed simply (and made good oatmeal. 🙂 )

I enjoyed learning more about them but was surprised by what I learned, especially that in their weekly meetings, they waited silently for God to speak to and through individuals rather than studying what He already said to them through His Word. (The author notes at the end that though originally they expected their “inner light” not to contradict Scripture, over years they they gave more weight and credence to it than the Bible, leading some of them astray). They also believe that “there is that of God in everyone,” a phrase often repeated throughout the book. It seems to go beyond the concept of being made in God’s image: Hannah muses at one point, “The Creator of our souls had left a part of Him inside us, and the more we responded to and came to resemble Him, the more our inner lights increased.” Though we are all made in God’s image, He does not reside in each of us (1 John 5:12). So they’re farther from Biblical Christianity than I thought, but it was interesting to learn their customs.

I especially empathized with Hannah and her struggles between the desire to help others and right wrongs vs. what she had always been taught:

Everywhere I looked, everything I learned only added to the sense that there were grave injustices being heaped upon our land. And that Friends, too easily persuaded to silence, allowed them to continue. What if we were not only called to maintain peace but also to defend it? What if we’d all been wrong? What if men were called to fight for what they believed in?

The chapters alternate between Hannah’s and Jeremiah’s points of view. I listened to the audiobook version but also reread parts in the Kindle version (the latter includes the author’s notes and discussion questions.) The male narrator performing Jeremiah’s part did a superb job with both inflection and mood. It took me a long while to warm up to Hannah, as she came across as stuffy and self-righteous at first, and I am not sure how much of that was the writing and how much the narrator, or both. Probably she was meant to come across that way. But I did eventually.

In the last third of the book when the situation they’re passing messages about comes to a head, it was hard to put the book down. I thought it ended a little abruptly. I don’t necessarily have to have everything tied up in a neat bow at the end, but I would have liked to have seen a little more about how things worked out for everyone.

Overall it was a good, informative, and later on a very exciting book.

Genre: Historical fiction
Potential objectionable elements: Nothing explicit, but a scene with the officer who took over the Sunderland’s house “entertaining” a woman in his room went on much longer than necessary. I think the idea was to show he was a scoundrel, but I got that quite early on.
My rating: 8 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carol‘s Books You Loved, and Literary Musing Monday)

Books you loved 4






Book Review: Quo Vadis

Quo VadisWhen I posted my reading plans for the year, a friend suggested that Henryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword: An Historical Novel of Poland and Russia would fill the Forgotten, Long, or Translated classic categories of the Back to the Classics Challenge. I was looking over descriptions and reviews of the book and decided to look into for next year’s challenge, but noticed along the way that Sienkiewicz had also written Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero. That’s a title I have heard of for years but never read, and I was looking to replace the classic I had originally chosen for a translated one, so I started listening to this via audiobook. Then I got the free Kindle version to reread or look more closely into various sections.

The Latin phrase quo vadis means “Where are you going?” and is usually connected with a legend that says Peter was fleeing from Roman persecution when, outside the city, he saw Jesus with His cross coming into the city. When Peter asked where He was going, Jesus supposedly replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” I had thought perhaps the title might be a metaphor for the various characters, especially Marcus Vinicius, and it may be, but the author includes the legend as a scene near the end of the book as well.

Vinicius is a Roman tribune who falls in love with a beautiful young woman who is the ward of a general. Her name is Callina, though she goes by Ligea throughout most of the book because her people were known as Ligeans. They were conquered by Rome, and technically she is a hostage. Somehow she came to the house of Aulus Plautius and his wife, Pomponia Graecina, but she has become like a daughter to them. Marcus’s attraction at first is primarily lustful: she’s beautiful and he desires her, so his uncle, the influential Petronius, suggests that, since she is a hostage, they can have Caesar take her from her home, bring her to the palace, and then give her to Marcus. Marcus doesn’t understand why this does not go over well with Ligea (duh), but while at the palace where they participate in a feast which turns into a drunken orgy, Marcus realizes that one of the things he loves about Ligea is that she’s not like other women, and to either take her by force or subject her to such an atmosphere would not only violate her personally but would change everything he loves about her.

At one time Ligea drew a fish in the sand, but Marcus did not know it had any special meaning. Ligea escapes the palace with her servant and the help of a number of other Christians. In trying to find her, Marcus learns that the fish is symbolic of Christianity. He and Petronius are surprised that Ligea is a Christian, as there are a number of odd rumors going around about Christians, such as that they poison wells and fountains, worship an ass’s head, murder babies, and “give themselves up to dissoluteness.” But since Ligea and the one or two other professing Christians they know are not like that, then the rumors, they reason, must be wrong. Marcus doesn’t care, as he is willing to set up an altar to Christ and add Him to the other gods he worships, if he can only find Ligea and make her his.

Marcus does find the Christian community, and as he spends time with them, he realizes that being a Christian is not just a side religion for them, but rather affects everything they do. Furthermore, it is an obstacle between himself and Ligea, because, though he senses she loves him, she could not be his mistress, because it would violate her religion, and she could not marry him because he is not a believer. Thus he is in an agony.

The context of their story plays out in the backdrop of the Roman civilization of the time. Though many covet the favor of Nero’s court, it’s an uncertain place to be, as Nero’s favor can change on a whim or the merest displeasure. When Marcus reminds Petronius that he is “playing with death” by his verbal jousts, Petronius replies that “That is my arena, and the feeling that I am the best gladiator in it amuses me.” The excess, frivolity, self-gratification, depravity, and cruelty of the Romans, particularly the patrician class, is contrasted with the poverty, simplicity, sincerity, and goodness of the Christians. Many of the major characters come to their own fork in the road and have to decide which way they are going.

And all at once he saw before him a precipice, as it were without bottom. He was a patrician, a military tribune, a powerful man; but above every power of that world to which he belonged was a madman whose will and malignity it was impossible to foresee. Only such people as the Christians might cease to reckon with Nero or fear him, people for whom this whole world, with its separations and sufferings, was as nothing; people for whom death itself was as nothing. All others had to tremble before him. The terrors of the time in which they lived showed themselves to Vinicius in all their monstrous extent. He could not return Lygia to Aulus and Pomponia, then, through fear that the monster would remember her, and turn on her his anger; for the very same reason, if he should take her as wife, he might expose her, himself, and Aulus. A moment of ill-humor was enough to ruin all. Vinicius felt, for the first time in life, that either the world must change and be transformed, or life would become impossible altogether. He understood also this, which a moment before had been dark to him, that in such times only Christians could be happy.

The author has Nero and Peter coming face to face at one point, which probably did not really happen, but of the meeting he says:

For a while those two men looked at each other. It occurred to no one in that brilliant retinue, and to no one in that immense throng, that at that moment two powers of the earth were looking at each other, one of which would vanish quickly as a bloody dream, and the other, dressed in simple garments, would seize in eternal possession the world and the city.

Even Petronius, though not at all tempted by the Christian religion, acknowledges “that a society resting on superior force, on cruelty of which even barbarians had no conception, on crimes and mad profligacy, could not endure. Rome ruled the world, but was also its ulcer.”

There is a definite Catholic flavor to much of the Christianity in the book, perhaps most noticeable when the author has Peter saying that God will build His capital in Rome rather than Jerusalem (not something the Bible ever intimates) and calls Peter the “vice-regent” of Christ. But there is also a surprising amount of truth in a lot of the characters’ grappling with what Christianity would mean to them. The author portrays many of the Romans as not really believing in the gods, much less loving them, though they felt compelled to placate them with offerings for good measure. But the Christians had “found a God whom they could love, they had found that which the society of the time could not give any one –happiness and love.”

“What kind of God is this, what kind of religion is this, and what kind of people are these?” All that he had just heard could not find place in his head simply. For him all was an unheard-of medley of ideas. He felt that if he wished, for example, to follow that teaching, he would have to place on a burning pile all his thoughts, habits, and character, his whole nature up to that moment, burn them into ashes, and then fill himself with a life altogether different, and an entirely new soul.

Since the book was written in 1895 and translated in 1896, of course it reads like an older work – more telling than showing, a little dragged out in places. Peter and Paul are highly idealized. I had to smile at a description of Marcus’s handsomeness remarking about his “brows joining above the nose.” Perhaps a unibrow was considered handsome then. 🙂 But the descriptive passages of the famous Roman fire and the persecutions in the arena were quite well done. Of course, given the setting, we know that someone among the main characters will end up in the arena, but it didn’t happen in any of the ways I had thought it might, and there is quite a bit of intrigue about whether that person can be saved before their time in the arena comes.

The author is said to have done quite extensive research before starting this book, and he weaves historical details in fairly seamlessly. I am not well versed in that segment of history, so I am not sure how much is factual and how much is fictional except that he did include some actual historical figures, though of course their conversations are fictional.

I have to commend him, too, that some of the scenes portraying the profligacy of the people left one feeling disgusted and sick at their actions without the descriptions getting too gratuitous. I wish modern authors would take a note from this. He does include a few details I would prefer to have been left out (too many mentions of “heaving bosoms”), but considering what could have been said about what was going on, particularly at Nero’s feast, he showed much restraint. I’ve often said “less is more” with these kinds of details, and this book illustrates that.

The book left me with several thoughts to ponder, among them: the cost of following Christ, something we don’t take into account in our day in many places in the world; the thought that whatever persecution or disfavor we think Christians are facing now, we really haven’t seen anything yet in most places; the testimony of the Christians that belied the rumors about them (“For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” – I Peter 2:15); the thought in an above quote, that in such times only Christians could be truly happy, for this world is not the end for them.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Frederick Davidson, and honestly, it was hard to follow at first. That’s one reason I got the Kindle version as well. I am not sure if it was due to the opening of the book itself or the narrator’s voice. He did some characters very well, particularly Petronius, Chilo (a wily investigator employed by Marcus), and Nero, but other times he spoke in a monotone. Once I got well into the book and invested in the characters, however, the less his narration bothered me.

There are a number of film versions, notable a 1951 film starring Deborah Kerr and Robert Taylor, that I would like to see but haven’t yet. It would be interesting to see how they condense the 22 hours of the book to the 2 hours or so of a movie. I was very surprised it was not on Netflix.

Though it was not a flawless book, overall it was a good read and I enjoyed it.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)