Review of Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin
by Ursula K. Le Guin
I respect Ursula K. Le Guin greatly, for although she tackles many difficult and controversial topics, she never beats you over the head with her opinions. Works like her The Left Hand of Darkness allow you to read an intriguing story while at the same time, if you want, open yourself to new ideas.
Le Guin brings a feminist voice to the eponymous Lavinia, a character from Vergil's Aeneid. She tells Lavinia's story from her point of view, wrapping it within the meta story of Lavinia encountering the poet Vergil through a series of dream sequences. I found that a bit hard to follow, but it didn't really ruin my enjoyment of the book.
It isn't just Lavinia's story, though, which is truly what makes the book work. Le Guin uses Lavinia to bring us a glimpse of a period of history often overlooked in contemporary literature. Many authors write about ancient Rome and Greece, but until now I've never encountered a book set just prior to the founding of Rome. Le Guin shows us what life might have been like for those Latin villagers, what a noblewoman like Lavinia could have expected in terms of being married off, the rituals and beliefs in their pre-Olympian, pre-Christian cultures. I found it fascinating.
So why only two stars? Well, frankly, it is not as good as most of Le Guin's work. "Okay" is not good enough--I expect better! Plus, in places the narrative was somewhat dry, so while the setting and characters were interesting, the story was not always so. Some people might not like the narrative style either--there is very little dialogue, except in Lavinia's conversations with Vergil. Instead, it is told in an almost stream-of-consciousness perspective, with Lavinia relaying back her interpretation of the other characters' thoughts and actions.
If you don't read this book, you're not missing out on anything big and impressive. If you like Le Guin, Lavinia, or pre-Roman Italy, you'll probably enjoy this.