Set in 5th century BC Persia and Greece, this historical novel follows the lives of Aspasia and Pericles. The former is a brilliant and beautiful hetaira (courtesan) who eventually meets and pairs up with the latter, the renowned general and elected leader of Athens for over thirty years, a time which saw the peak of that great city state’s flourishing.
I found both the characters and overall outlook and tone of the third person narrator to be deeply cynical, elitist, and often contemptuous. There was only one supporting character I could consistently sympathize with and like, that of a female physician friend and lover of Pericles’, who does the key transitional act of introducing him to Aspasia at a dinner party. Unfortunately, this supporting character’s name eludes me now. (I put the book down a few weeks ago.) This left me feeling like a distanced observer most of the time rather than an emotionally engrossed reader. Granted, some passages of sexual intrigue were entertaining, along with the many descriptions of pretty women and men in their ornate clothing, jewelry, perfumes, buildings, and gardens, including when they ate exotic, delectable foods. I can appreciate abundant detail, though it was excessive in places even for me in this often indulgent yarn.
The first several pages of the book were devoted to laying out how Aspasia is a brilliant, challenging student to her teachers. I think one brief classroom scene would have sufficed, instead of three or so extended scenarios, to relay the author’s point of how exceptional, gifted, and strong-willed this woman was. Parallel to Aspasia’s teachers’ anger with her know-it-all argumentativeness, I honestly felt exasperated with the writer’s diarrhea of the pen.
Then there is all the blatant sexism, classism, and racism. How one chooses to write about two inherently classist, sexist, misogynist cultures (Greek and Persian) in an ancient time period takes great thought and skill. I myself prefer the inclusion of a more informed, modern perspective that integrates understandings gleaned from discourses of feminism and anti-racism/egalitarianism, among others. Unfortunately, Ms. Caldwell’s avowed conservatism shows through in this tale. Bound by reductionist conventional thought along the lines of “men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” the author has all of her characters existing and operating from this tired old paradigm, with the partial exception of both Aspasia and Pericles’ physician and socialite friend. Aspasia’s courageous attempts to live and succeed in a man’s world, surely parallel to what the author was doing during her lifetime through most of the 20th century, come through as often admirable (while other times not) in the narrative, and for that I am appreciative. I admire and respect anyone who can succeed against great odds, so long as minimal harm is done to others along the way.
I looked forward to Ms. Caldwell’s descriptions of Athens and rendering of Pericles, a historical figure I’ve read about elsewhere with a mix of admiration and sadness. Well, Pericles is portrayed as an often quiet (i.e., “strong silent type”), arrogant ass, surrounded by elitist and petty people even worse than he. Clearly, the author did not like the actual concept of democracy and found every moment of digression in the story to criticize it as “feminine” and unreliable, preferring a more fixed laws republic. Hmmm, since human needs evolve somewhat over time as technology progresses, how can all laws remain completely unchanged? She never answers that question. Caldwell has her characters even pragmatically think and suggest that “benign” tyrants or dictators heading up governments are perhaps the best solution, albeit not a realistic one. Her contemptuous attitude about the “rabble,” i.e., the peasant/working class was distasteful to me. Caldwell did not believe in the possibility that a critical mass of people in a civilization could govern themselves and others fairly and effectively. And while that is a topic open to debate, I do think the author used this position as an excuse to portray most of humanity in her book as petty and unsympathetic. Sadly, Pericles comes across as cold, calculating, elitist, and cynical with– sure enough- contempt for the “plebeians” and “peasants,” who are all “less” than “superior” men. And while Pericles undoubtedly was likely largely this way in actuality within such a misogynist, classist culture and time in history, I found his actual humanity in this novel present but often lacking, certainly not enough to connect me, the reader, with him. The writer’s repeated description of Pericles as being like a statue did not help warm me to him in the least. He often seemed two dimensional and overly extreme.
Caldwell’s blatant touting of Christian monotheism in the book annoyed me to no end. She had Pericles agreeing with a few of his friends’ endorsement of the “Unknown God,” and largely reduced the Greek pantheon to being symbols of and for a corrupt, petty bureaucrat priesthood that was going out of style. Lovely. Granted, the author did allow for some beauty of the ancient and sacred to come through via some descriptions of picturesque scenery and the artful practices of courtesans. This was a nice reprieve here and there from her otherwise constant return to polemicizing against democracy, polytheism (via touting monotheism instead), and the working class “rabble.” She just could not help herself. This diverted away from the flow of the narrative of people and place. Personally, I do not read novels to be lectured at again and again about the writer’s political, spiritual, and philosophical views, even if I happen to agree with them. It’s like watching a movie on television interrupted with too many commercials, only perhaps even more bothersome.
By the time I got to the third and final section of the book, in which Pericles and Aspasia are together as a couple, I lost patience and interest. It starts out with an overview of Pericles’ narcissistic former stepson’s cruel and criminal acts, including his killing of two slaves, a child and an elderly woman. I briefly thought of Donald Trump as that character and started to shut down a bit, an indication that I really could not be aggravated further. Besides, now that the two main characters were together, after an admittedly intriguing and sexual-tension-filled scene (minus the author’s usual inserted- in polemics via conversations between the guests, including Socrates) towards the end of the novel’s second part, I no longer cared much about the story. Also, Pericles mother had long-since died, another somewhat sympathetic side character, albeit a very sad and often helpless one.
I hope this will be my only “semi” book review, as I do prefer to write about texts that I’ve actually finished from cover to cover. GLORY AND THE LIGHTNING had some beautiful, thought-provoking moments of description and human feeling here and there. But, I found the tale generally frustrating, unsatisfying, and alienating due to what felt like constant, long-winded interruptions of the author’s obnoxious personal views. These coarse interweaves into the narrative I could have done without. With them all removed, the novel would have been far shorter, faster moving, and more relatable.