Once again, I had the pleasure of reviewing a book for the Blogher Book Club. This time Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy. Blogher has changed their format a bit to create a more engaging and conversation based review process. So I'll post a brief review here and then Blogher is hosting some fantastic discussions about the book over on their site. Take a minute and go visit! I'll be arguing and debating with my fellow reviewers off and on for the next few weeks and certainly stirring up trouble. Well, the kind of geeky trouble that only book nerds can stir up. (Side note: While I was compensated for this review, the views expressed here are solely my own, as usual.)
The main character of Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore (a book title that is ultimately titillating and somehow a let down) is a fascinating, bold, aggressive and morally ambiguous character just trying to survive in the often dangerous, misogynistic Byzantine Empire. Born into a poor family, raised to be a performer and prostitute by the age of 12, she is a fast talking, sexually skilled and an evidently hilarious actress. Until she becomes a pious Christian woman. Duffy does a skillful job at staying impassive and non-judgemental in tone throughout Theodora's raucous life. Duffy doesn't bring a modern, critical eye to Theodora's actions, she just tells her story. Except my main problem with the novel is that Duffy tells us all of these scandoulous and transformational steps in Theodora's life but does very little to actually show them. And this makes the story more dull than it should be. There is so little dialogue in this book that I felt like an impassive observer reading this novel. I didn't care as much about the fate of the characters, because it was a bit like reading a textbook. Too much historical detail and not enough of the inner-workings of the character's emotions and motivations. Not enough talk and communication. Two characters would have a passionate lover's quarrel and Duffy just writes a quick paragraph describing it. No fighting words, no insults, no anger. Just a paragraph. They fought, she left.
There was so little conversation between characters that Theodora seemed isolated and mute at times instead of the fierce, intelligent fire brand she was supposed to be. In one part of the book, Theodora begins a lesbian relationship with a fellow Christian in the Christian spy network that she has recently joined. Duffy just slides this in in the very first paragraph where she introduces the lover. No build up, no reasoning, very little conversation, just they had an affair. Even though Theodora is a recently converted Christian. I wanted more in scenes like this. I like this book, I do. And the dialogue issue does improve a bit towards the end, in the empress section. As Theodora develops a relationship with the soon-to-be-crowned Emperor Justinian, there is a bit more natural conversation as the characters get to know each other better, but it was almost too little too late. Is Duffy afraid of trying to put words in the mouths of Byzantine era characters and having them sound too modern? I would have preferred her take the risk.
This novel is being adapted into an HBO series and I can't wait to see it. I love the characters, the rags to riches story and the sexual and political exploits, it's ripe for adaptation to HBO, like Rome or Deadwood. But Duffy needed to get out of the dusty libraries where she did her immaculate research and breathe more fighting, bleeding life into the characters. HBO knows how to do that. The real flaw in an otherwise engaging and rather breathtaking story is that passive voice and heavy tendency to describe instead of letting the characters tell the reader themselves.
The time period is fascinating, Christianity is growing and struggling, the Roman Empire is in flux and women's roles are limited but subtly powerful. And while Duffy captured the historical context, the political events and a very strong general sense of the time period, I wish she could have brought more life to the story. I wanted to hear what Theodora had to say and I don't feel like I ever did.