Summary and book reviews of Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin

Lavinia
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2008,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2009,
    288 pages.

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Book Summary

Troy has fallen. Rome is a tiny village by the seven hills... At the end of Vergil’s epic poem The Aeneid, the Trojan hero Aeneas, following his destiny, is about to marry the Italian girl Lavinia. But in the poem, she has played only the slightest part, and has never spoken a word.

Daughter of a local king, Lavinia has lived in peace and freedom, till suitors came seeking her hand, and a foreign fleet sailed up the Tiber. Now her mother wants her to marry handsome, ambitious Turnus, but strange omens, prophecies spoken by the voices of the sacred trees and springs, foretell that she must marry a stranger. And that she will be the cause of a bitter war. And that her husband will not live long.

Lavinia is determined to follow her own destiny. And when she talks with the spirit of the poet in the sacred grove, she begins to see that destiny. So she gains her own voice, learning how to tell the story Vergil left untold — her story, her life, and the love of her life.

I know that there will be far greater kings of far greater kingdoms than Latinus of Latium, my father. Upriver at Seven Hills there used to be two little fortified places with dirt walls, Janiculum and Saturnia; then some Greek settlers came, rebuilt on the hillside, and called their fort and town Pallanteum. My poet tried to describe to me that place as he knew it when when he was alive, or will know it when he lives, I should say, for although he was dying when he came to me, and has been dead a long time now, he hasn’t yet been born. He is among those who wait on the far side of the forgetful river. He hasn’t forgotten me yet, but he will, when at last he comes to be born, swimming across that milky water. When he first imagines me he won’t know that he is yet to meet me in the forest of Albunea. Anyhow, he told me that in time to come, where that village is now, the Seven Hills and the valleys among the hills and all the river banks will be covered for miles with an ...

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Introduction

In The Aeneid, Vergil's hero fights to claim the king's daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. In this novel, Lavinia is given a voice and perspective all her own, which she uses to tell both the story of ancient Italy's first great people—the Latins—and of the great hero Aeneas's final years spent as her husband and king to Italy's people.

Against the backdrop of a half-wild world of gods and prophecies, great halls and muddy villages, Lavinia grows from a young girl of carefree joy to a young woman haunted by the madness of her mother and the responsibilities of her father. As is her duty, she meekly entertains the attention of suitors who would marry her to gain her ...
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Reviews

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When thinking of the epics that tell the tales of Odysseus, Achilles and Aeneas, grand scenes come to mind. Characters are larger than life, battles are loud and bloody, and the gods are an ever-present influence over the fortunes of their heroes. If the reader approaches Lavinia with these expectations, they will be disappointed. It's not an epic; it's a quiet tale, small and contained. It tells of the things that would have concerned the women of that time – tending to the hearth and performing home rituals, caring for their children, ministering to the wounded in battle -- common, mundane matters. Battles happen in the background for the most part. There are no marble-columned palaces here; what action there is takes place in a rural community.

The reader's expectations may also be distorted by a well-publicized review by Publishers Weekly comparing Lavinia favorably to Robert Graves's I, Claudius. Any parallel that reviewer saw between the two novels is unclear, as the books aren't remotely equivalent. I, Claudius provides a sense of epic history; Lavinia reads more like a diary. Anyone selecting Lavinia based on an assumed similarity with I, Claudius will almost certainly be dissatisfied with it ....

Lavinia's strength is the depth of Le Guin's imagination. Lavinia is a fully fleshed out character. The novel is rich with detail, and Le Guin's scholarship evident. It won't be for everyone, but readers who take pleasure in learning what day-to-day life was like in a distant era will find Lavinia worth their time.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Full Review Members Only (958 words).

Media Reviews
School Library Journal

The author's language and style are complex, making this a title for sophisticated teens.

Booklist

The compulsively readable Le Guin earns kudos for fashioning a winning combination of history and mythology featuring an unlikely heroine imaginatively plucked from literary obscurity.

Kirkus Reviews

Arguably her best novel, and an altogether worthy companion volume to one of the Western world's greatest stories.

Library Journal

Starred Review. As Le Guin's afterword acknowledges, this beautiful and moving novel is a love offering to one of the world's great poets, and former high-school Latin scholars may return to Virgil with a renewed appreciation. Highly recommended.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Lavinia's world, from which Western civilization took its course, [is] as unique and strange as any fantasy.

Entertainment Weekly - Jennifer Reese

The book lacks the dazzling originality of Le Guin's science fiction, but she makes the material her own when she eventually pushes the action beyond the scope of the Latin classic. B+

Los Angeles Times - Jay Parini

This is a poem in the form of a novel, an elegant echo chamber for a canonical work, a reading of an epic poem, and a rewriting of that poem.

Houston Chronicle - Eve Ottenberg

Ursula K. Le Guin vividly fills in some of the blanks in Virgil's Aeneid .... By telling this story from its heroine's clear, forthright perspective, Le Guin has taken the cipher that is Virgil's Lavinia and given her a new life.

Reader Reviews
Martin Wyatt

A new departure
I read the first two pages and thought, oh dear, Mary Renault. Not that I have anything against Mary Renault, who was very good in her way, but she was not Ursula Le Guin. At the end of the second page, everything changed, and it became altogether ...   Read More

Beth

I wanted to like it better
Because of Ursula leGuin's reputation as an excellent writer of fantasy and science fiction, I eagerly started her historical/mythological fantasy, Lavinia. At the beginning, I was not disappointed. Lavinia's character as a young princess in the ...   Read More

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Vergil
History records that Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Vergil (or Virgil), was born in 70 BCE. Scholars argue about his place of birth and his early education, but legend has it that he was born the son of a farmer in Northern Italy, which was then known as Cisalpine Gaul ("Gaul, on this side of the Alps"). Despite a relatively lowly birth, he was well-educated, ending his education in Rome where, after dabbling briefly with other studies, he focused on philosophy.

Vergil lived during one of the most turbulent times in history. He was ten years old when the First Triumvirate (Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus) was formed, 17 when it collapsed, and 26 when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE. He fled south to...

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