Thursday, November 3, 2011

Actress, Empress, Whore

Once again, Penguin sent me the book and BlogHer is paying me to review it but the opinions are my own.

Stella Duffy's subtitle for her fictionalized biography of Theodora of Constantinope says it all, and in just the right order.  Slowly, somewhat coldly, Ms. Duffy brings the reader into Theodora's mindset and time frame but most of all into the widening rift between Christianity's many sects as the first few hundred years after the birth of "the Christ" unfold.

It's not a piece of history with which I am very familiar, and that was a problem for me.  Chalcedon does not resonante; reading in paperback precluded clicking my e-reader for a little bit of web-surfing for background.  I've never been jealous of digital books before; now I see a useful purpose for an internet connection while I'm reading.  Duffy's assumption that her reader could keep the factions straight posited someone with more knowledge than I.  It was annoying to feel that I was missing parts of the story. An introduction would've helped immensely.

Sent for sex before she menstruated, sat upon by eunuchs, seeing her father mauled to death - Theodora's childhood was much worse than she seemed to think it was.  This disconnect between her reality and my perceptions made the beginning of the story problematic for me.  I read along, but I wasn't engaged.  Slowly, gradually, as the grown woman emerged from the child, Theodora did manage to suck me in and spit me out at the end, as the crowd called her name and Justinian took her hand as consort and Empress and wife.

The political machinations, the inner palace intrigues, the internecine battles amongst Christians were far more interesting to me than to the author, I think.  I have reader's lust; I want to know more.  Though told from Theodora's perspective, I don't think the book would have suffered from a bit more explication.

It's a great, sweeping tale, with a decent map which allows the reader to follow Theodora from The City to the desert and back once more.  Her life is sexual and sensual and resilient.  The smells, the sounds, the feeling of being in Constantinople (and the ache in her soul when she is not) are the story's best moments.  I missed it as much as she did.  The telling felt modern.

That's a good thing and a bad thing Anachronisms abound.  "Theodora didn't want to screw it up"  stopped me in my tracks.  I never thought the ancients used modern slang.  Bad grammar rears its ugly head, too.  Theodora was proud of her learning; she'd never say "That woman is no better than me."  Duffy assumes her reader has done as much research, has as much knowledge, reads as much Greek as she does. Casually dropping theotokos into a sentence without an explanation is showing off, not drawing the reader in.  Duffy spends her time explaining that which you've already read, repeating the actions and the reactions which are obvious and part of the plot-line.  I think she'd have been better served providing more background and less regurgitation.

By the time Theodora left the desert, I was in love with her.  As she found herself again in Constantinople I was proud of her.  And when she realized that
She was the highest woman in the Empire and she was exactly the same,  Everything had changed and nothing, and that she was still the same woman.... astonished her
 I knew that I was, ultimately, glad to have read this book.  I knew just what she meant, just how she felt as the duality was impossible to comprehend.  Been there, felt that.

I'm off to the library for more books on the period.  I suppose that means that Theodora was a successful read; it opened my mind to more.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review. I will have to admit that I don't know much about this period in history. We studied ancient Greeks and Romans in school, but that was the extent of it.

    You now have me intrigued to read up more about Theodora and that time period.

    Let us know what else you find out.


    Megan xxx

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  2. Agreed! I went and started googling antiChalcedonean, because the religious sects were very interesting to me. It actually kind of spoiled the end of the book, (ok no more than the title, really), but I also wished there had been something about the way Theodora helped Timothy escape, as I read about in my research.

    Theotokos was explained very early in the reading when there was discussion about the vying theologies. But I agree, that bit of the book dragged for me too, even though the concept is very interesting.

    I followed Theodora with the same heart - falling slowly in love with her and by the time she left the desert, I, too, was fully enchanted. Her return to Constantinople made my heart surge, and I feared greatly for her when she got sidetracked. I loved that she took up spinning - I have recently done so myself! :)

    Excellent book!

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