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Lavinia Hardcover – Apr 10 2008

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt; 1 edition (April 10 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151014248
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151014248
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.6 x 2.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 522 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #651,407 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In the Aeneid, the only notable lines Virgil devotes to Aeneas' second wife, Lavinia, concern an omen: the day before Aeneus lands in Latinum, Lavinia's hair is veiled by a ghost fire, presaging war. Le Guin's masterful novel gives a voice to Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus and Queen Amata, who rule Latinum in the era before the founding of Rome. Amata lost her sons to a childhood sickness and has since become slightly mad. She is fixated on marrying Lavinia to Amata's nephew, Turnus, the king of neighboring Rutuli. It's a good match, and Turnus is handsome, but Lavinia is reluctant. Following the words of an oracle, King Latinus announces that Lavinia will marry Aeneas, a newly landed stranger from Troy; the news provokes Amata, the farmers of Latinum, and Turnus, who starts a civil war. Le Guin is famous for creating alternative worlds (as in Left Hand of Darkness), and she approaches Lavinia's world, from which Western civilization took its course, as unique and strange as any fantasy. It's a novel that deserves to be ranked with Robert Graves's I, Claudius. (Apr.)
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"She never loses touch with her reverence for the immense what is."—Margaret Atwood

"Like all great writers of fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin creates imaginary worlds that restore us, hearts eased, to our own."—Boston Globe

'There is no writer with an imagination as forceful and delicate as Le Guin's."—Grace Paley

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Customer Reviews

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By CanadianMother TOP 500 REVIEWER on June 8 2009
Format: Hardcover
I was not sure what to expect from Lavinia. When I started reading it, I admit I found it difficult to get in to, and I also found it strange that the character of Lavinia *knows* she is a character in a poem, rather than a real person. (This sounds bizarre I know, but Le Guin manages to pull this idea off, and brilliantly.)

But although it started off slowly for me, in the end, I was deeply impressed by the book. It moved me, it intrigued me, and furthermore, the ending is truly one of most magnificent I have ever read. It is perfect, and it left me absolutely in tears because it was so beautiful and sad. (Yes, this is ultimately a sad book, but haunting and beautiful as well.)

I also found it fascinating to see this glimpse--albeit one from Le Guin's imagination, not necessarily from history--of how the people living in Italy prior to Rome's founding may have lived. This is not a time in history that you hear much about, because simply, not much is known about it. Le Guin created her own semi-mythological version of ancient Italy based mostly on Virgil's epic poem. She states in her afterword that the people of that time and place likely were not as sophisticated and advanced as she portrayed them, but that's all right. I like her version of ancient Italy, especially the religion, and I enjoyed spending time there.

Lavinia will be one of my most memorable reads of 2009. I highly recommend it to Le Guin fans, to anyone interested in ancient Roman history, or to admirers of Virgil.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By on April 21 2008
Format: Hardcover
Ursula Le Guin is one of those writers who I'll read any day. In this novel, I was hoping for more of the mysticism that's present in her YA series, but this is historical fiction at its best.

Lavinia is the King's daughter who Aeneas fights to claim in Vergil's The Aeneid. Le Guin brings her alive.

Great book.
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By Emma Leer on Oct. 7 2009
Format: Paperback
Ursula LeGuin bettered my writing through her inspiring book "Steering the Craft". Lavinia is the first of her novels that I read. Now I want to read everything she wrote, just for the pleasure of hearing her words, her thoughts, her voice. In Lavinia, she has made a story from the mythology sound contemporaneous. Her strong female protagonist tells her story as if it were happening now. She succeeds in creating intimacy with the readers. Emotions can be felt. The writing is so clean, I wonder which words could be taken out. I wish to write like this one day.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A. Lewis on July 23 2008
Format: Hardcover
I was disappointed with this book even though I've read Vergil and love classical history. This story is so insipid I almost put it down. I finished it and would call it Le Guin's worst work. I have come to expect so much more from her. It was a very intriguing character to write about (hence the extra star) but failed for me to be a gripping story. I found I could care less about any of the characters who were all so predictable.

Yes, I'd call it a historical romance, too and file it under chick lit (which I don't read by the way despite being a "chick").
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 106 reviews
88 of 91 people found the following review helpful
Arma reginamque cantat April 18 2008
By Susan Shwartz - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Read it.
I read about Le Guin's adaption of the second 6 books of the Aeneid in last Saturday's WSJ's Arts Section. She prepared by reading the entire epic in Latin.

This book is even more spare, more austere than most of her work, but it is not self-conscious or self-gratulatory about it. She has caught the "Old Roman" voice and understands the almost untranslatable words "pietas" and "nefas."

No English words do these concepts of moral and civic virtue as opposed to unspeakable wrong justice, and Le Guin both knows this and presents them as the ongoing moral struggles and examples they represent. She has also placed herself firmly in the grand tradition in which, Vergil, Dante's "il miglior fabbro" (sp) appears to her (and to her protagonist, the Italian princess who marries Aeneas) and explains, as he is floating in and out of life, what he was trying to do with his vision, in tribute to and in conflict with Augustus in a very different city indeed.

In the end, character enters into dialogue with poet: creator and created benefit from the experience. Because, as Lavinia says with no resentment, Vergil has failed to "breathe sufficient life" into her (she has not a single word of dialogue in the poem), she has not life enough to die like Dido (who really is an operatic character), but lives on, a quiet, eloquent voice of an intregrity that Rome lost, but never ceased to value.

Le Guin's prose is very different from the clangor of the dactylic hexameter epic line. It is brilliant, bravura, meant for battle and great deeds; Lavinia's quiet prose describes daily wonders and is wrought out of her service of her city, her family, and her altars -- a different sort of vocabulary, indeed. Both possess their own strengths.

And Le Guin now joins the artists who, in the Middle Ages, wrote within the Matter of Antiquity, which was, as a twelfth-century Frenchman said, wise.

He was right.
133 of 141 people found the following review helpful
Masterpiece April 5 2008
By Peter Hentges - Published on
Format: Hardcover
At what is undeniably the height of her writing prowess, Ursula K. Le Guin brings us a novel of incredible richness and depth. As example I offer this: It is the only book I have read that contains a self-aware character. Lavinia sees herself as a character, brought into being by Virgil's poem and given immortality by her scant share of it. "I am contingent," she tells us early on, perhaps meaning that her being is dependent upon Virgil who will be born many centuries in her future.

What emerges under Le Guin's careful stewardship of this fragile being, brought into existence by a passing remark of a poet, is a rich landscape of simple country life. Along with Lavinia we experience the joys and comfort of simple rituals, offerings to household gods and the spinning of wool. We witness the arrival of a great hero as foretold by ancient oracles. As treaties are made and broken we endure the horror of war and then watch with pondering inevitability as the happiness of marriage swiftly becomes the tragedy of a widow and the squandering of a husband's dream.

We are redeemed in the end by Lavinia's immortality and by, again, the inevitability of history. Rome is founded. Virgil writes his epic. Lavinia is given life.

With her skill, Le Guin does more than expand upon the immortal life that Virgil granted to Lavinia, she draws us into that life. Lavinia speaks to us across the centuries, but through Le Guin's work, we also wander the wooded hills of ancient Latinum.

There is depth to this work that I think I will only discover upon re-reading it. And then there are depths that I think I will only discover after re-reading the Aenied. And there are still more depths that are hinted at, glimmers in the darkness, that I may never guess at unless I were to learn more Latin and read the Aeneid in Virgil's own language. That is why I call this novel "masterpiece." If I do not see its like again I will be satisfied to know that some measure of it will go on, as Lavinia has.
38 of 38 people found the following review helpful
what a lovely book! April 16 2008
By Kindle Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is the by far the best book I have read so far in 2008. It has lovely prose, and filled with intelligent writing and levels upon levels of meaning.

LeGuin is clearly inspired by the classic The Aeneid: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (Penguin Classics Deluxe Editio).

She tells the story of Aeneas and the Trojans coming to Italy through the point of view of the native Latin people, particularly through the eyes of their kind and intelligent princess, Lavinia, destined to become the second wife of the Trojan prince and leader Aeneas, and the mother of Rome.

The events of this story can be interpreted as a tragedy to the Latins - armed strangers come to their country, a war immediately breaks out, the leader of the strangers marries their princess (the only surviving child of their king), and their culture and destiny are changed forever. The Latins living through these happenings certainly do not realize that these events will someday lead to the Roman Empire.

Particularly well done (in a marvelously well written book) are the explorations of the relationship between creator and character - as in the scenes when Lavinia goes to the sacred springs of her family and receives visions of the poet Virgil. She is his character; he her creator. They are being granted visions of each other, separated as they are through hundreds of years and layers of myths and legend. Does he change reality to better fit his artistic visions? Who effects whom more - Lavinia or Virgil? Which comes first - character or creator?
33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Not up to LeGuin's usual standards May 1 2008
By J. Fuchs - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
LeGuin had a great idea -- take the little written about Lavinia, the last wife of the Trojan hero Aeneas, in Vergil's epic poem The Aeneid and flesh it out into a story of pre-Rome Italy. With LeGuin's writing and Vergil as source material what wouldn't be great? Unfortunately, LeGuin seems constrained by the mythological elements in the story and the writing is ponderous and slow, in keeping with epic poetry perhaps, but not what you expect from LeGuin. As others have noted, the writing is beautiful but the story is slow. Even after removing the action of the gods from Vergil, everything is a bit too perfect. LeGuin takes the liberty of having Lavinia know that she has been created by Vergil, but it still would have been nice to be able to see Lavinia as a flesh and blood human being of pre-Roman Latium. The principal characters just don't come alive. Only the slaves and farmers, secondary characters here, seem real. Everyone else is the perfect hero or flawed anti-hero of myth, try as LeGuin does to make them seem real.

On the plus side LeGuin is great writer so you never feel like this is a complete waste of time, and you get to know the story of the Aeneid somewhat, of how after the fall of Troy Aeneas wandered through Africa and Sicily looking for a home for his people, and ended up in Italy, married to a princess of Latium. I didn't learn quite as much about the time and place as I'd have liked, but even though I was a bit disappointed, I'm still glad I read this.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Contingent Aug. 30 2008
By Roger Brunyate - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Lavinia, the title character of Ursula LeGuin's unusual novel, is a character from Virgil's AENEID. She plays an important function in that epic about the forefather of the Roman people, because she will become Aeneas' wife and the mother of his son Aeneas Silvius. First mentioned in Book VII, just beyond the half-way point, she becomes the cause of the wars between the Trojans and the Latin tribes that occupy the last six books of the saga. But although she is desired and fought over, she remains a peripheral character whom Virgil never allows to speak. LeGuin now remedies that omission.

"I know who I was, I can tell you who I may have been, but I am, now, only in this line of words I write. [...] I won't die. Of that I am all but certain. My life is too contingent to lead to anything so absolute as death." In these passages near the beginning of the book, Lavinia recognizes herself as primarily a character of fiction -- Virgil's fiction, and now her own. That is what she means by "contingent," a word that recurs often. In one of her most brilliant strokes, LeGuin, with the imaginative freedom of a science-fiction writer, has Lavinia travel backwards and forwards in time, knowing not only her own history but also parts of her future, and communicating directly with the poet who gave her birth. The two early scenes in which the spirit of the dying Virgil appears to the teenage girl at night in a sacred grove are among the most effective in the book.

But "contingent" has other meanings. In Virgil's epic, as in those of Homer, the actions of men are partly controlled by the intervention of the gods; the whole AENEID can be seen as the outcome of a struggle between Venus and Juno. In writing of the early Italian tribes, LeGuin goes to a simpler form of religion, whose deities are treated as relatives and mentors, appearing in birds and trees, hills and streams. This rural pantheism gives LAVINIA a simple and welcoming setting, in which even the cities seem little more than the clustered houses of the farmers who work the surrounding lands. The absence of distant controlling gods does not make the characters any less contingent on the omens and auguries they draw from the natural world around them; obedience to such influences is a mark of piety and honor, and there are several times where they redirect the whole course of the action. Lavinia has an especially close affinity with the land and its creatures, so the omens that speak to her seem less like outside forces than a reflection of her own sense of what is right.

"Contingent," alas, can often be applied to women's dependent relationship with men. Lavinia, for Virgil, is little more than a trophy, for whom -- no, for which -- Aeneas fights and ultimately kills the Rutulian prince Turnus. But LeGuin paints a society in which women are, literally, given a seat at the table. Her Lavinia has her father's ear and a place in his affections. She has personality and feelings, fire and a will of her own, and she gets to exercise it. Later in the passage quoted above, Lavinia compares herself to a princess who features at the start of Virgil's epic: "Like Spartan Helen, I caused a war. She caused hers by letting men who wanted her take her. I caused mine because I wouldn't be given, wouldn't be taken, but chose my man and my fate." In writing LAVINIA, LeGuin gives her heroine a feminist liberation. When she is free and follows her heart, in her struggles with her mother, and even when she has to fight against residual male domination, Lavinia is a character to weep over and cheer for. But when, about halfway through the book, the action descends into descriptions of male wars, with long roll-calls of soldiers and warring factions, the title character is momentarily eclipsed. She re-emerges in the second half, which follows her story after the AENEID ends and shows her as a mother rather than a bride. There is a lot here that is interesting, including Lavinia's troubled relationship with her step-son Ascanius, but I feel that without a parallel Virgil text to illuminate, without his compelling time-line, LeGuin's narrative loses cogency and focus. A pity.