four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-LaviniaUrsula K. Le Guin has been a steady, versatile writer for nearly half a century. Best known for her science fiction and fantasy (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Earthsea Cycle), for which she has won five Hugo and Nebula Awards, LeGuin riffs on Virgil in her latest novel.

The Story: Lavinia is known, if at all, as the second wife of Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid. In Virgil’s work, the young daughter of Latinus warrants only two lines. In Le Guin’s richly drawn world, Lavinia is a complex, practical young woman who understands the political implications of a marriage to Aeneas (war between the Trojans and the Rutulians) and her place in a society that undervalues women (she has been betrothed without her approval to Turnus, a favored son of Latium). She also bemoans her treatment at the hands of Virgil: "He slighted my life in his poem." Le Guin’s incarnation of the classical poet recognizes his error in a metaphysical twist when he is transported on his deathbed to Lavinia’s time and the "the unfolding of a hint."
Harcourt. 279 pages. $24. ISBN: 0151014248

Baltimore Sun 5 of 5 Stars
"[D]evotees and new readers alike have an immensely important work—perhaps the masterwork of [LeGuin’s] career—to revel in. … An extraordinary, haunting and keenly wrought tale of love, vengeance and redemption, Lavinia captures—stunningly and unerringly—an era so far removed from our own as to be unimaginable." Victoria A. Brownworth

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[I]n what some science-fiction fans, adoring of Le Guin, might characterize as yet another swerve from what the current living master of the form does well (which is to say imaginative fiction about the future), the inspired novelist has turned back toward the past—or, to be precise, poetry and myth about the past, because Lavinia is a literary rather than a historical figure—and written one of the finest novels she has ever made." Alan Cheuse

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Lavinia] is an absorbing, reverent, magnificent story, one I will be pressing upon my friends all year. … Once or twice the story slips toward the ponderous, but it also thrills for being that rarity—a sinewy book riven with awe." Karen R. Long

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"One cannot really know what life was like among the various people who inhabited what is now Italy in that period, but Le Guin supplies vivid details drawn from archeological research and her own rich imagination. … She has heard voices and channeled them in the language of Lavinia herself." Jay Parini

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"With her new novel, Lavinia, fantasy and science fiction virtuoso Ursula K. Le Guin vividly fills some of the blanks in Vergil’s Aeneid. … By telling this story from its heroine’s clear, forthright perspective, Le Guin has taken the cipher that is Vergil’s Lavinia and given her a new life." Eve Ottenberg

Philadelphia Inquirer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Here Lavinia is at the mercy of Le Guin, who has read, her acknowledgments tell us, two compelling books on Roman rites and rituals. Hence, Le Guin has Lavinia and Aeneas performing altar duties every few pages." Susan Balée

San Diego Union-Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Lavinia is … a prodigious blend of imagination, ideas, writerly daring and dazzle. And yet, after struggling through its nearly 300 pages, I discovered myself no more involved with the characters at the end than I had been at the beginning." Julie Brickman

Critical Summary

Nearing 80, Le Guin has written a stunning book that melds meticulous research (according to one critic, perhaps too much) with her trademark imagination and engaging, spot-on prose into a tale that Virgil himself might have appreciated. Lavinia benefits from the ideas and the world building of Le Guin’s earlier SF/Fantasy efforts, as well as her passion, cultivated over the last decade or so, for the Latin language (she read several lines of The Aeneid a day in the original to prepare for the novel). Transcending Robert Graves’s I, Claudius and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (a take on Homer’s Odyssey), Le Guin "has taken the music of Virgil’s Aeneid and recalibrated it, making a new thing of these ancient melodies in modern English" (Los Angeles Times).