The Wickedest Woman in the World

Since January (well, February really. January was a blur.), I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more. On the beach in Goa, I devoured Shantaram, a 900-page novel about one man’s adventures in India. On the drive back to the midwest, I listened to Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty. I didn’t take many books with me in my move, but I brought enough that I’m now through seven in just a few month’s time, a faster clip through books than I’ve moved at any time in recent memory.

And I’ve enjoyed it, too. Remembering what it’s like to make the time to open a book (I don’t own any e-reader, and I’m not convinced I want one) and set aside all else to fully take in what’s on the page is one of life’s small luxuries.

Most recently on my list was CLEOPATRA: A Life, a biography of the Egyptian queen by Stacy Schiff, which I took myself to brunch today so I could finally finish (any excuse for bottomless coffee). I’ve had it for a couple years now, and am sorry that it took me this long to get to it, as it’s a stunning portrait of a woman history has marginalized into a deceptive beauty, at best.

Schiff marries strong historical research with a charming narrative style that makes it all easy to get lost in. In fact, over the course of reading this one I found myself thinking about Cleopatra and her cast of characters (Caesar, Mark Antony, Cicero, Plutarch) at odd times throughout the day, anxious to get back to the book to see what came next in their epic lives.

While I likely won’t retain every detail, I’m walking away with some decent cocktail party conversation about the woman who ruled Egypt. Did you know she married two of her brothers and had one killed (the other drowned) so that she might keep the throne? Did you know that her relationships with both Caesar (with whom she had one son) and Mark Antony (three children) were more strategic alliances than romantic dalliances? And that she didn’t die from a poisonous snake bite at all, but likely poisoned figs she had smuggled into the mausoleum where she was in hiding from Octavian (aka Augustus), whose Roman victory over Egypt was inevitable?

She’s a powerful figure, one we all too quickly associate with Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 performance or Shakespeare’s tragedy. Though Schiff admits to significant gaps in the history some 2,000 years later, the portrait she crafts is more complete than any pop culture would have you believe.

From our first glimpse of her to the last, she dazzles with her ability to set the scene. To the end she was mistress of herself, astute, spirited, inconceivably rich, pampered yet ambitious.