I have had Kate Quinn’s debut novel, Mistress of Rome, on my to-read shelf since January 2010! And I totally forgot about it—this is why I love my to-read shelf. I don’t remember how I learned about it, so it’s serendipitous that I found Daughters of Rome, which has whet my appetite even more for Mistress. I saw this book on the “New Books” shelf at my library and decided to “give it a chance”. That’s a code phrase for “I’m not really sure I’ll enjoy this, but it is within my sphere of interest”—in this case, fiction set in ancient Rome. Rome, like Tudor England, is a setting for which I have some affinity—in particular, I like the Roman Empire in its early years. So Daughters of Rome went home with me. The title and some of its packaging make it seem like it’s aiming at the romance audience, or at least at whoever decided “chick lit” is a viable genre label. Don’t be fooled: Daughters of Rome is 100% grade-A straight up historical fiction, and it is awesome.
I have a friend who is a classics/archaeology expert, my go-to Rome expert, and who has also read this book. And I said to her, “I can see why you liked this book. The women are lascivious, but in a self-possessed way, not merely in a way that involves words like turgid….” Yeah, there are romantic aspects to this book (some of which are my least favourite things about it), but the four female main characters pursue these relationships for their own reasons, not merely because they are there for a male lead or leads to conquer. Roman patrician (upper class) women were subject to the will of the paterfamilias, or male family head of the household—but as Quinn demonstrates, they often found interesting ways to subvert or rebel against such rule.
Daughters of Rome is set during the tumultous Year of the Four Emperors, and Quinn sensibly divides the book into sections covering each emperor’s reign. Following Nero’s death in AD 68, the Senate put Galba on the throne. But after Galba chooses Cornelia’s husband as his heir, Senator Otho successfully carries off a coup, killing Galba and Cornelia’s husband and seizing the throne for himself. Cornelia is grief-stricken and even, at one point, suicidal. Her cousin Lollia, who has had a revolving door of marriages made by her grandfather for their advantage, finds herself divorced—again—and married to Otho’s odious right-hand man. Marcella, Cornelia’s sister, undergoes a metamorphosis from writer of histories to chronicler of history to a shadowy manipulator of history. Finally, my favourite, Diana: another cousin who eschews political machinations for an obsession with the chariot races, their horses, and a radical lack of giving a shit. She is a honey badger, and it is awesome.
Quinn sets herself an ambitious task. Not only does she have four main characters, but she tells their story in less than 400 pages. Some authors write thousand-page epics following two or three characters, and they still don’t pull it off. Somehow Quinn manages to create four different women who all have their own obsessions, foibles, and goals. Together they give us an excellent picture of the diversity among a single patrician family in the Roman Empire, all set against the backdrop of the tremendous political change happening in Rome.
And if political intrigue is your thing, then Daughters of Rome delivers on that too. In general, all four sisters are very aware of the tension in Rome following Galba’s assassination. Associated as they were with his heir, they worry about their status under Otho—hence Lollia’s hasty remarriage. This pattern repeats itself when Vitellius takes the throne, and so on with Vespasian. As the tides turn, all of Rome scrambles to find favour, and this family is no exception.
Marcella’s plot follows her awakening, if you will, as she realizes the inadvertent role she might have played in the deaths of two emperors. This motivates her to plot the downfall of a third and fourth. She becomes very withdrawn and almost secretive, and watching her hubris and subsequent fall is simultaneously one of the most satisfying and most tragic parts of this book. I loved that Diana, whom Marcella dismisses as “stupid but observant”, is the one who connects all the dots for her cousins when it comes to Marcella’s actions. I loved the conversation Marcella has with Marcus Norbanus, who earlier in the book implied some interest in her and her scholarly endeavours. He essentially rejects any notion of further association with her, saying outright, “I find I don’t like you anymore.” That change perfectly captures Marcella’s turn toward the dark side.
Cornelia dabbles in political plotting as well, determined to obtain revenge for Otho’s role in her husband’s death. However, she eventually becomes focused on a new lover. I kind of wish Quinn didn’t go for the “patrician girl falls for the centurion” story, because it seems trite and clichéd. Indeed, there isn’t much I can say in favour of this particular plot. I recognize that Quinn is placing Cornelia in a situation that her former self would have condemned for its lack of propriety. But this consumes her character so completely that it’s difficult not to describe it as anything other than the “romance” label I so emphatically discarded earlier in this review. Daughters of Rome is a complex book, and I think it will appeal to different people for many different reasons.
I haven’t said much about Lollia. She’s a source of those “romance novel” vibes as well, because Quinn describes her sexual affairs and proclivities in great detail. However, it’s not all fun and games. There is a heartfelt moment where we learn that Lollia trusts her grandfather, a former slave who has risen to a position of wealth, above all else, and she tolerates the way he manages her marriages because she knows he has always acted like it’s “them against the world”. Lollia and Marcella’s domestic situations illustrate the brutality that could easily spoil the seemingly-placid lifestyle of the patrician woman. Lollia treats her marriage to Fabius Valens like all her others, some kind of game, and happily continues having sex with her man-slave—until Fabius has him whipped and then backhands Lollia’s three-year-old daughter. Quinn has this ability to turn the tone of a scene on a dime, and she uses it to great effect. Daughters of Rome has lots of romance-like aspects to it, but there are deeper moments that explore the social situation and the role of women in the Roman Empire, and it’s awesome.
For the most part, Quinn seems to adhere to the history as we know it fairly well. I am not familiar enough with the history of this period to spot any but the most egregious errors, but Wikipedia does help. And Quinn is rather open in her historical note about what she changed—for instance, Lollia and Diana are both fictitious characters. With Diana, this seems rather obvious, because I question whether such a rebellious girl would be allowed in a patrician household—and even if she had existed, I doubt she would have driven in a chariot race and been so celebrated. Diana is the character who almost transforms Daughters of Rome into one of those larger-than-life “we made a movie set in ancient Rome” movies, the kind where men are real men and women wear diaphonous garments and all the dialogue makes you want to cringe because it seems so desperate to communicate that it is “ancient times”. She is over the top. And I can’t help but love her.
Diana does not let anyone push her around. She mouths off to emperors and ignores imprecations and opprobria. She does not care about finding a husband. At one point her cousins question her about her relationship with a British horse-breeder (he has secretly been teaching her to drive chariots). They ask, “Do you love him?”, and Diana replies something along the lines of, “At one point I thought I might, but now I don’t think so.” And that’s just such a refreshing, believable sentiment: she doesn’t meet this mysterious foreigner who shares her affinity for horses and fall into his arms. They become friends, but it’s not the type of magnetic romance that ruined my enjoyment of Cordelia. Diana is just a marvelous, fun character, even if she might be somewhat unrealistic.
That’s OK: Quinn has earned her creative license with everything else that Daughters of Rome delivers. This is the type of historical fiction I like, and this is the quality of fiction I demand.