book review, historical fiction

Review: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin is a retelling of the last six books for Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, from Lavinia’s point of view.

The reader first meets Lavinia as a pre-teen very close to marriageable age. As suitors begin to present themselves for her hand in marriage, and the keys to the kingdom of Latium, Lavinia convinces her father to put them off a few more years. While her mother, Amata, pushes a marriage with her cousin Turnus, Lavinia sees a different fate for herself.

At a sacred altar in Albunea, Lavinia meets a ghost or vision of the poet Virgil himself. She does not know how or where or why he appears to her, but he recounts the tale of Aeneas he is writing–a story in which she will soon become part. He tells Lavinia about Aeneas’s trials before he will reach the shores of her home. He tells her about the impending war; who will die and who will rule.

Lavinia tells her father, King Latinus, that an oracle at the sacred place of Albunea has prophecized that she must marry a foreigner, and that this foreigner will become the new king. When the Trojans do arrive and Lavinia is promised to Aeneas, the other suitors feel betrayed and spark the war the poet foretold.

Giving a voice to the voiceless Lavinia is a powerful statement in that it reclaims woman’s agency not only in classic literature, but also in a historical context. While I like the idea of fleshing out a faceless, two dimensional female character from a classic tale, I was not a huge fan of the execution of this novel. I known Le Guin is more known for her fantasy novels, but I found Lavinia to be very heavy on the exposition. Many large events were simply summarized to the reader rather than experiencing them, which put me at a constant disconnect with Lavinia. The large chunks of exposition rather than real character development often made my mind wander.

There were a few lines throughout the book that struck me as profound and well written, but overall I unfortunately found Lavinia to be quite a slog.