Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
For the last few months, every time I've opened Amazon, Stacy Schiff's biography of Cleopatra has stared me in the face as one of their "Recommended for You" reads. When I read Leaving Van Gogh a few weeks back, Schiff was one of the book jacket commenters. Although I didn't love Leaving Van Gogh, I decided that if Amazon thought I'd like her book, I'd get it from the library. After all, I do like good historical fiction.
The book came in, and I picked it up, eager to delve right into it. Within the first paragraph it was obvious that I'd misjudged the book. Just because Schiff commented on a work of historical fiction, I'd assumed that her work on Cleopatra was also historical fiction. Not so. It was a biography. I don't read a lot of biographies. I feel a little dumb for saying this, but I find them boring. They're the vegetables of the reading world, and I'm more of a hot fudge sundae kind of a reader.
As far as biographies go, Schiff's Cleopatra is a good one. I'd say that the greatest strength of the book is the picture she creates of the entire Mediterranean world in the decades Cleopatra ruled Egypt. She talks a lot about the social systems in Egypt, Rome and Greece, and about how Cleopatra followed and broke traditions. Alexandria in the time of Cleopatra sounds a lot like an educated Vegas on the sea (which does not equal Atlantic City). However, because there's so little hard facts out there about Cleopatra herself, I felt a little bit like Schiff pieced together a mosaic to create a picture of the woman, but the picture was still a little bit fuzzy.