Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fiction Review: Cleopatra’s Daughter

One of the things I enjoy about book groups is that they often result in reading books that I normally wouldn’t pick up myself.  Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran is just such a book.  I guess I still have this idea in my head that I don’t like historical fiction (probably left over from not enjoying history class in school!), even though my book groups have now introduced me to plenty of it that I have enjoyed.

Cleopatra’s Daughter is, quite obviously, about the only daughter of Cleopatra.  It takes place just as Marc Antony’s rival, Octavian, captures Egypt, and Antony and Cleopatra take their own lives, leaving their twin 10-year old children, Selene and Alexander, orphans.  Octavian takes the twins as prisoners and brings them back to Rome with him.

Once he has paraded them through Rome in his victory celebration, they aren’t treated as prisoners, though.  It’s really quite fascinating.  The children lived in Octavian’s sister’s (Octavia) home and were raised alongside her children and Octavian’s and treated mostly as equals to them, attending school together, eating meals together, and becoming friends.  The story, narrated by Selene, continues through their adolescence.

The novel feels very much like a Young Adult novel, since it is narrated by a young girl, focused on the details of her daily life, her hopes of returning to Egypt someday, her fears of what Octavian might do as they grow up, as well as the concerns of every teen girl: boys, clothes, love, and her future.  Selene and Alexander are both very likeable characters, as are most in Octavia’s household, and the historical details are fascinating.  Moran must have done meticulous research.  In fact, we learned in the author’s notes at the back of the book that truth really is stranger than fiction!

My only problem with this novel was having trouble following it in the beginning.  There are many characters to keep track of, often with similar names (Octavia and Octavian aren’t the only ones), plus the Romans of the time tended to divorce and remarry multiple times, with children resulting from each partnership so it was tough at first to remember which children had which parents – lots of mix and match.  Moran includes some helpful references at the start of the book – a historical timeline, two maps, and a list of characters – which I found myself flipping to constantly during the early chapters.  Once I got further into the story and more familiar with the characters and events, it got easier.

Everyone in my book group enjoyed the novel very much, and it sparked lots of great discussions on a wide variety of topics, ranging from the history of divorce to the role of religion in ancient cultures to foods and other details of daily Roman life.  If you enjoy historical fiction (and maybe if you think you don’t), you’ll enjoy this engaging look into growing up in Ancient Rome.

416 pages, Crown Publishing Group, Random House



  1. I'm so happy your group enjoyed this one. Surprised it read like YA. Nice review Sue.

  2. I love historical fiction for much the same reason that you thought you didn't. I did not like history class in HS. It was dry and boring and completely unconnected to my life. But good historical fiction brings history to life in a way that is interesting. I've learned more about history from historical fiction than I ever did from history class. Which is why I say "good" historical fiction. It's important to know where the history ends and the fiction begins.

  3. I have been wanting to read a book by Michelle Moran for a long time but haven't managed to pick one up. This sounds interesting. I also was considering her Nefertiti. I have a feeling I won't be picking one up unless my book club chooses it, though.