Review: Lavinia

Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia is a recommendation I picked up two years ago, on my graduation trip to Ireland and England with my parents. I had just started writing down books I wanted to read and book blogging a little, so I often found myself wandering Waterstone’s…eses… and drooling over UK editions of books, particularly Stephen King’s works and, of course, The Lord of the Rings. And that’s where I found Lavinia, with a little notecard from an employee extolling its virtues. I loved Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (I wish there was an audiobook of it; at least, an audiobook available on CD) in high school, so I wrote it down. And I only now got around to it. Ah, the joys of a reading list pushing five hundred.

In The Aeneid, Lavinia, the third lover, second wife, and last wife of Aeneas, never speaks a word. In Lavinia, Le Guin corrects this, giving Lavinia a voice Virgil never did. In ancient Italy, Lavinia, princess of Latinum, grows up in relative peace, beloved by her pious father and manipulated by her mad mother. When her mother determines that Lavinia will marry Turnus, a handsome, capable, but brutish cousin, Lavinia seeks help from the sacred springs, which tell her that she will marry a foreigner, be the cause of war, and that her husband will die after three years. Faced with the prospect of being forced to defy prophecy, Lavinia takes her fate into her own hands—and becomes a legend.

Ah, the wonders of fanfiction. This is exactly what I’m talking about when I sing the praises of fandom—what Le Guin does here with Lavinia is being done with dozens of glossed over and ignored female characters in myriad fictional universes. The only difference is that Le Guin is working with a classical text in the public domain. It’s engaging with the original text by correcting it, and it’s a wonderful thing. However, I do think I shot myself in the foot here by having never read The Aeneid before picking up Lavinia. I was just craving some historical fiction as a palette cleanser between back to back science fiction (the books being Glow and A Fire Upon the Deep, respectively) and didn’t realize I needed to do some background reading. And therein lies the difference between what’s labelled as fanfiction and what’s not; were this a piece of fanfiction, I would never have picked it up without reading the source material. (Although, to be completely fair, I’ve never read The Wizard of Oz or seen the film, and yet I love and adore Wicked, yet another fantastic example of fanfiction giving a character her soul back.) That has no bearing on the quality of the book, just the quality of my reading.

Le Guin’s prose and research feel effortless; there are some hauntingly beautiful lines in here, such as “I felt that night that to have known such fulfillment was to be, in some part of my being, forever safe from absolute despair, from the ruin of the soul. Joy my shield” (214). She mentions in the afterword the reconstruction she had to do (and had to get help with) in order to get a handle on the geography of Lavinia’s world, and it’s quite extensive. She knows it well and she uses it without ever succumbing to Worldbuilder’s Disease, which I truly appreciate. But the structure of the piece strikes me as a little off-kilter. The majority of the novel deals with Lavinia changing, in whatever way she can, her own marital destiny for Aeneas, whom she’s chosen. (Well… more on that in a bit.) But once the two settle down, the novel briskly trots through the rest of her life, glossing over battles and wars when it can. While I appreciate the inversion of a text that I gather is quite focused on the battles and the wars, it just seems to trail off, especially given Lavinia’s awareness of her own fictionality.

One thing I do love in Lavinia, which is otherwise a good but unremarkable historical novel, is the relationship between Lavinia and Virgil. Only the men of Lavinia’s line see the prophesying dead at the sacred springs; what Lavinia meets there is Virgil in his death throes, long after he wrote The Aeneid. Their relationship is, quite frankly, beautiful. Virgil laments how much he got wrong about her—including her hair color—and what disservice he’s done. He tells her about Aeneas and the two talk about life, Lavinia’s fate, and other things. One of those hauntingly beautiful lines is Lavinia recalling what Virgil said to her—I shan’t spoil it. Lavinia’s awareness of her own fictionality stems from here, as she tries to reconcile the fact that she’s a character in a story with the reality of her life. There’s something meta about it, of course, but Le Guin doesn’t push this as much as I would have liked. Her fictionality gives her a thin immortality, which separates her from her dead and, unfortunately, robs the novel of a real ending—after all, if it’s the story of her life, and her life never ends, where can you really go?

Bottom line: A good but unremarkable historical novel elevated by Lavinia’s awareness of her own fictionality and her relationship with her poet, although that same awareness makes it trail off instead of actually end. If you’d like.

  • Le Guin, Ursula K. Lavinia. New York: Harcourt Books, 2008. Print.

I rented this book from the public library.

5 thoughts on “Review: Lavinia

  1. I hadn’t read the Aeneid either (still haven’t, although it’s on my list), but I had read Jo Graham’s Black Ships, which is a similar retelling from a minor character’s point of view, but which focuses on Aeneas’s journey, so I had at least a vague grounding in the story. Like you, I found Lavinia to be a solidly good but not particularly mind-blowing read, but I absolutely adored Black Ships… and I think it’d be up your alley, as well.

  2. Oh my God, Virgil and Lavinia meet? I didn’t even know that and I want to read this book infinity times more than I did before. Which was already a lot!

  3. Pingback: Review: Black Ships « The Literary Omnivore

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