Friday, March 1, 2013

Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin

Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin

"In a richly imagined, beautiful new novel, an acclaimed writer gives an epic heroine her voice

In The Aeneid, Vergil’s hero fights to claim the king’s daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. Lavinia herself never speaks a word. Now, Ursula K. Le Guin gives Lavinia a voice in a novel that takes us to the half-wild world of ancient Italy, when Rome was a muddy village near seven hills.

Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom, until suitors come. Her mother wants her to marry handsome, ambitious Turnus. But omens and prophecies spoken by the sacred springs say she must marry a foreigner—that she will be the cause of a bitter war—and that her husband will not live long. When a fleet of Trojan ships sails up the Tiber, Lavinia decides to take her destiny into her own hands. And so she tells us what Vergil did not: the story of her life, and of the love of her life.

Lavinia is a book of passion and war, generous and austerely beautiful, from a writer working at the height of her powers." (summary from amazon)


I so loved this book! It is probably because I am a Latin nerd more than anything, but I have to say I thought this book was brilliant. It was totally not what I expected and surprised me completely.  I thought I was going to read a traditional retelling of classical literature from a girl power perspective with a little fantasy thrown in on the side. It is a little bit of that, but so incredibly different from that too. 
 I don’t know what my response to the book would have been if I hadn’t been so familiar with the Aenied in the first place. I feel the novel was so powerful for me because I understood how it reinterpreted, interacted with, and added to the Aenied. Yet, LeGuin makes the narrative more interesting and intricate by making Virgil, the author, an important character in the novel. It is so fascinating to see how artfully she explores the reasons why Virgil overlooks Lavinia as a character, at how creation of story works, about why Virgil felt his creation so imperfect at the end of his life, although we still consider it a masterpiece of literature.
  I love the discussion between Aeneas, Lavinia, and Ascanius about the meaning of virtue in the classical sense—as manliness. How Aeneas believes that a man should not only be able to prove his virtue through warfare and how Ascanius cannot see how to prove his virtue without it. The author turns Aeneas into both a fierce warrior and a humane and thoughtful leader, such a delicate balance that makes him into a complex, approachable, and sympathetic character.

So many words and I have not even approached Lavinia herself yet, who is such a pious, practical, and decisive character.  Traits, that make her feel to me like a real Roman woman.  I love how her role in society is portrayed also.  Lavinia had a place in her Father’s house, a role to play for her people, and the freedom to enjoy friendships and go traveling to sacred shrines to worship.  So many historical retellings are so obviously feminist that they feel inauthentic.  I often feel frustrated by the portrayal of Roman women in particular because they had quite a bit of freedom and quite a lot of influence, yet often people snub that.
 They look more at what women couldn’t do instead of what they actually did. They can only see how woman should have had more and miss entirely what they did have, and so silence their voices and actions just as effectively as they claim their men did. So, we see them with a double blindness both in the shadow of their men and the shadow of our modern prejudice.  Yet, I felt like Leguin looked past all that and really saw. Really saw the choices and complexities and freedoms and limitations of Lavinia’s femininity and position, and those correlated with how I would imagine the life of a Roman woman.  It really was just so refreshing to read.

Simply put, I found this book to be beautiful. It made me laugh, it made me think, it made me cry, and it made me see not only the characters of Virgil’s epic, but the man himself, in a whole new light.

LeGuin's Website

No comments: