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Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
By: 
Stacy Schiff
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A Life

A-CleopatraStacy Schiff, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her biography Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) (1999) has also written acclaimed biographies of Saint-Exupéry and Benjamin Franklin.

The Topic: The Cleopatra portrayed in the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton movie was an intriguing, dark beauty, the seductive consort of powerful Roman rulers. Stacy Schiff dispels many of the myths portrayed in film and literature to recast the last queen of Egypt as a shrewd political strategist who, for a time, successfully navigated a world dominated by the power-hungry Romans. Far from a ravishing beauty, Cleopatra used her cunning and wit to solidify her grip on the throne. A product of incest, she murdered her siblings to ascend to power; a learned woman, she ingratiated herself with Julius Caesar, who, despite his own political ambitions, helped her establish her kingdom. She later found a new military ally (and lover) in Mark Antony; both died tragic deaths. In recreating Cleopatra's life and times, Schiff offers new understanding of a deeply complex, misunderstood woman.
Little, Brown. 368 pages. $29.99. ISBN: 9780316001922

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Schiff] gives us a cinematic portrait of a historical figure far more complex and compelling than any fictional creation, and a wide, panning, panoramic picture of her world. ... Ms. Schiff also creates a portrait of an incestuous and lethal family in which sibling marriage and the murders of parents, children, spouses and brothers and sisters were common practice--a portrait as bloody and harrowing as anything in Titus Andronicus." Michiko Kakutani

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Schiff's rendering of [Alexandria] is so juicy and cinematic it leaves one with the sense of having visited a hopped-up ancient Las Vegas, with a busy harbor and a really good library. ... It's dizzying to contemplate the thicket of prejudices, personalities and propaganda Schiff penetrated to reconstruct a woman whose style, ambition and audacity make her a subject worthy of her latest biographer." Kathryn Harrison

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Schiff is at her best in conveying the physical lushness of Cleopatra's exotic world with its glittering sun and sand. ... Mixing contemporary sources, beautiful writing and psychological insight, Schiff makes us empathize with the heroine of this tale of togas, territorial conquest and hot love." Deirdre Donahue

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Drawing on a range of ancient written sources and archaeology, she plausibly gets into Cleopatra's head--by picturing Alexandria through the eyes of the Ptolemies, for example, and giving an in-depth description of the Greek curriculum she would have studied. It's an alluring way to reread the queen's story, emphasizing her most likely inward experiences instead of the maneuvering around her." Sarah Ruden

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Make no mistake, Cleopatra will drive some historians cuckoo: It conflates, guzzles centuries in a single sentence. It's too in love with the slick phrase. It has hiccups of repetition a more careful editor might have eradicated. But it is a great, glorious spree of a story." Marie Arana

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This book is as much a biography of the city of ancient Alexandria as it is of its last pharaoh, and much of Schiff's prose is devoted to extolling the sophistication, wealth, and sumptuousness of Alexandria in contrast to ‘squalid and shapeless' Rome. ... Schiff is clearly inspired by the drama of Alexandrian culture but, like the great city itself, her imagery is sometimes too rich for its own good." Buzzy Jackson

Critical Summary

Critics acknowledge the difficulty of writing a biography of a ruler about whom few solid details are known, but Schiff rises to the challenge and succeeds. Schiff delved into recent scholarship on women in the Hellenistic period, as well as older written sources, to offer a juicy portrait of Cleopatra that makes us rethink the queen we know from history and paint a panoramic picture of her world. The main players, including Caesar and Antony, come breathtakingly alive; so, too, does Alexandria, a sumptuous city exploding with sounds and scents. Psychologically astute and beautifully written, Cleopatra is sure to become the definite biography of the ruler, a work worthy of Cleopatra's own wisdom and learning. "Ms. Schiff does a rare thing," notes the Wall Street Journal. "She gives us a book we'd miss if it didn't exist."

Also by the Author

Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) (1999): In this portrait of a woman and a marriage, Schiff explores how Vera was crucial to her husband's writing career. Together they had a hardscrabble life until Lolita became an international success, at which time they were in their late 50s. To that point she had served as his public face while also editing and translating his writing. After Lolita, she also served to calm readers nervous about Nabokov's "perversities."