Title: Daughters of Rome
Author: Kate Quinn
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 388 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars
I’ve been wanting to immerse myself in some delightful Roman fiction lately, and Daughters of Rome was just what I’d been hoping for. It’s a prequel, sort of, to Quinn’s Mistress of Rome, which I read last year and which made only a mediocre impression on me. Daughters of Rome is a big, big improvement. Quinn has figured out how to wrangle multiple viewpoints without jarring the reader.
Daughters of Rome tells the story of the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD) from the viewpoint of the four Corneliae women — officially Cornelia Prima, Secunda, Tertia, and Quarta, but informally Cornelia, Marcella, Lollia, and Diana. Cornelia is married to Piso, a Senator that all of Rome assumes will be tapped as heir to the imperial throne — and she’s excited about that. She has her eye on being Empress, but her joy in that possibility is troubled by her apparent inability to conceive a child, even after 8 years of marriage. Marcella, Cornelia’s younger sister, is stuck in a completely loveless marriage with Lucius Aelius Lamia, a politician who spends most of his time abroad. Marcella fills her hours with writing histories of Rome, much to the dismay of her relatives. Their cousin Lollia is on her third husband at the beginning of the book, as her slave-born grandfather whirls her around for political advantage. She bears up cheerfully, however, taking lovers as it suits her and generally making the best of circumstances. Diana, another cousin and youngest of the four, has no time for men or politics; she’s horse-mad and has no thoughts for anything but the chariot races and the victory of her precious Reds. They’re four completely different women, but devoted to each other.
The book whirls through the Four Emperors, but keeps its focus tightly on the four women. We see the change from Galba to Otho to Vitellius to Vespasian through their eyes, and even if you know the history of the politics, the twists and turns of the book remain surprising, because it’s not really about the political facts — it’s entirely about the four female lives. Of the four, only Cornelia and Marcella are real historical characters (though all of Lollia’s husbands were real, and Diana serves as a perfect representative for all Romans who were obsessed with the races), and Cornelia doesn’t make much of a mark on history, disappearing into domestic obscurity. Quinn grafts historical fact and imaginative speculation together beautifully, immersing the reader in life in Imperial Rome. There are still just a couple of small inaccuracies, fewer and smaller than in Mistress of Rome, but which still perplex me, since Quinn clearly Has Done the Research. Overall, though, the experience is entirely transporting.
What I really enjoyed about this book was the way that Quinn subverted my expectations about the characters. When I began, I thought I knew who our protagonist was. Among the prude, the flibbertigibbet, and the sports fan, of course my sympathies would lie with the writer — with clever, subtle Marcella. After all, that’s the sort of character who’s usually the reader avatar in any historical novel. Just ask any romance fan — we like bluestockings, women who challenge ideas about literacy and intelligence. That’s who we’re supposed to glom onto.
Except, in Daughters of Rome, the characters are all dynamic, and wonderfully so. The turmoil of the year transforms Cornelia from a straight-laced, ice-cold matron to a warm, exuberant woman. Lollia, troubled when life becomes too serious for her liking, learns to value real love and her family over fleeting pleasures and casual affairs. Even Diana, who is the flattest of the four characters (Marcella at one point thinks of her as the least interesting girl in Rome, and I’m not sure she’d be wrong), grows into herself by the end, proving her worth and demonstrating that she’s not quite as thick as everyone assumes. Marcella, though, becomes so much less sympathetic as the book goes on — and I find that fascinating. She’s smug and secretive, and as a reader, you share Cornelia’s and Lollia’s frustration with her increasing self-absorption. It’s hard to feel sorry for her at the end (and it took me a while to realize just who she was and what would become of her, since Quinn changes her name from the historical record), because she brings it entirely on herself with her scheming.
Daughters of Rome is thoroughly enjoyable historical fiction, especially for anyone looking for something a little non-standard within that genre. The turmoil of this time period is prime fodder for political and personal intrigues, and Quinn plays them to the hilt. Highly recommended.