Original Year of Publication: 1997
Hardback Page Count: 964
Genre: Historical Fiction
Summary: Cleopatra, the doomed Egyptian queen, is known throughout the world as a temptress, seducing two of the most powerful men to ever live: Julius Caesar, and Marc Antony. Brought to life by George's writing, it's now she who tells her story. From her earliest memories, to her dying breaths, all is told through ten "scrolls", carefully entrusted to her faithful--sarcastic--physician and childhood friend, Olympos. The story we all know is told now from an entirely new light: not through the victor, Octavian's, but through the eyes of Cleopatra herself.
I'm no stranger to Cleopatra's life. I'm not historian, but I am very, very fascinated by certain people, and Cleopatra is one of them. That said, I would trust Margaret George to an extent. She is a great historian, and I believe that her shortcomings in two previous books I've read by her are that she knowingly fictionalizes events far too much. She knows what happened. She had to know, when writing said books, that the events were not portrayed accurately--and that annoyed me. However, she does redeem herself with Memoirs.
From the very beginning, Cleopatra has a very distinctive voice. Though I found that mature voice to be a little strange on a child, you have to realize that the book is an adult Cleopatra remembering, which is why her young self wasn't as babyish as she would have been if it was written in the moment. However, Cleopatra isn't automatically a brilliant enchantress, a political expert; George has her evolve over the years as maturity is forced upon her with the death of her father and betrayal of her siblings.
The "seduction" of Julius Caesar takes place within the first hundred pages or so, and I consider it the first major event. Finally, a book that doesn't have Cleopatra being overly seductive, or just over-done in general. She was a twenty-one-year-old at the time, not at all powerful and, in reality, almost definitely a virgin. Julius Caesar--his conquests weren't simply militaristic. George treats it so; the relationship is portrayed with an almost paternal edge, with Caesar treating Cleopatra as both a lover and a political protegee. Her father was no man to look up to, and she had to learn from someone; it makes sense to me, as a reader. The relationship is romantic, but not overly so. Some have said that this book reads too much as a romance novel, and as a reader of romance novels, I have to disagree. I would say that the great historical romance of Cleopatra is seen through Cleopatra's eyes as such, but the reader may be able to dissect it a bit further, thanks to subtle hints George gives us.
So the book moves on. Cleopatra becomes a mother--thank goodness all four of her children were in the book, or I would have screamed--Caesar is murdered, and by the time her ill-fated romance with Marc Antony begins, she's already well on her way to becoming a world power. Here's where I really began to love the book. Marc Antony is a difficult figure to write about, because at least today's feminism can absolve Cleopatra of her "evil" nature, turning her into a woman ahead of her time rather than a villain. Antony's harder to handle. Octavian's propoganda still slanders the guy today, turning him into Cleopatra's lap dog. We forget today that Antony was a brilliant general and military strategist. If he hadn't worried for Egypt's welfare, there's a good chance that he would have beaten Octavian.
But he did worry for Egypt, and George portrays him in a way that makes it understandable. I felt like I was reading about a real, flawed person, and not the idiot the propoganda said he was. It feels as if you're seeing the truth behind Marc Antony and Cleopatra's relationship--while she did have her moments of manipulation, and he certainly didn't put her first in the beginning, it feels like they're real people standing right next to you. I sympathized with them, particularly Antony. George makes it seem as if their greatest flaw was wanting to have it all: a great empire, one that their children could rule safely within, and a family life.
Again, I would say that the best part of the book is Marc Antony's characterization. He is not as calculating as Caesar, but not "a strumpet's fool", either. Instead, he's a tragic hero, both overly honorable, and not honorable enough to leave Cleopatra and their children for Octavian's sister, his wife Octavia. It definitely sheds some light on what his true personality may have been like.
Another "finally" moment for me was when Octavian came onto the scene. Though he is hardly physically seen throughout the book, "Caesar Augustus" is definitely one of the strongest presences of the novel. History's treated Octavian very kindly; probably because contemporary writers were too afraid not to lavish praise upon him. Few remember the fact that Octavian was, first of all, not the rightful heir of Caesar in many eyes, and second of all, the murderer of a teenage boy who essentially posed him no threat. Who was, by the way, the son of the Caesar Octavian supposedly loved to death. You get the feeling that the vengeance he wreaks upon Caesar's murderers was just as much for show as it was an act of true grief.
It's a very human portrayal of three legends, all intertwining into one. George is mainly accurate, though she does embellish on a few things and guess with others; but it's clear that she knows what she's talking about with this one. The end dragged on for a bit, as I knew what was going to happen and dreaded it. The political and emotional parts of the book were far more interesting than Cleopatra's military ventures. But then, I got the feeling that George herself wanting to get to the meatier parts herself in those sections.
Four and a Half out of Five Stars: Definitely a recommendation to any historical fiction lover, a must-read for anybody interested in Cleopatra, Caesar, or Marc Antony. I would even say that people who aren't that into historical fiction would like it, if it weren't for the occasional dry spells and sheer length of the book--a length which I, personally, found necessary. Each of Cleopatra's famous relationships is portrayed as a very careful blend of political alliance and passion--and that makes sense, once you read about it. Why wouldn't powerful people be drawn to each other? Margaret George handles the question, never overly romanticizing the truth, and adding even more intrigue where it was never lacking. You know the ending of this story, but instead of melodramatic, it is tragic, and George makes one read as if it's all up in the air. The characters are gripping, the story's reach, and the descriptions are lavish. You feel as if you're watching an epic period piece rather than reading a massive book.
Movie Versus Book: Yep, Memoirs was made into a movie, albeit a TV miniseries. I haven't seen it, but if you have, I can tell you right now that it is nothing next to the book. This should not have been a TV movie; it deserves the big screen. And yes, the movie did commit the history-heresy of cutting off at least one of Antony and Cleopatra's kids. (The history fan in me is screaming bloody murder.)
Also by this Author: The Autobiography of Henry VIII (not recommended), Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles (not recommended), Helen of Troy (RECOMMENDED), Mary, Called Magdalene (haven't read it).
Similar Books: Antony and Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough (have not read it).
Up Next: I, Elizabeth by Rosalind Miles