Sunday, August 05, 2018

Cleopatra's Sister

Cleopatra's Sister is a 1993 novel by Penelope Lively. I pick up this author's work whenever I come across it, and I love this book. It's a love story but not in any sense a romance. Delightful!

from the back of the book:
A paleontologist by choice -and perhaps also due to the accidental discovery of a fossil fragment on Blue Anchor Beach on the north Somerset coast when he was six years old- Howard Beamish is flying to Nairobi on a professional mission when his plane is forced to land in Callimbia. On assignment to write a travel piece for a Sunday magazine, journalist Lucy Faulkner is embarked on the same flight. What happens to Howard and Lucy in Callimbia is one of those accidents that determine fate, that bring love and can take away joy, that reveal to us the precariousness of our existence and the trajectory of our lives.

The imaginary country of Callimbia, which lies between Egypt and Libya on the Mediterranean Sea, has its own history whose narrative unfolds alongside those of Howard and Lucy in the first half of Penelope Lively's new novel. Callimbia's existence depends on an alternative account of ancient history in which the charismatic Berenice, sister of Cleopatra, flees Egypt to escape execution and eventually takes over the throne of neighboring Callimbia. Berenice's subsequent adventure with Antony, her sister's lover, and indeed the history of Callimbia down through the ages are no less real, perhaps, than the stories representing Howard's and Lucy's respective pasts in our own era.

All three narratives converge in the second half of Cleopatra's Sister, which takes place in Marsopolis, the capital of Callimbia. The suspenseful tale of what happens to the British passengers of Capricorn Flight 500, at the mercy of a capricious new ruler in violence-torn Callimbia, illustrates yet again the randomness of events that make up both history and a human being's life.

That Howard and Lucy find each other in Marsopolis is more or less fateful than Howard's finding that piece of ammonite on Blue Anchor Beach many years earlier. Indeed, one event would never have happened without the other.

While the past has always seemed to haunt the present in Penelope Lively's novels -from the Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger to the more recent City of the Mind- her newest book explores the role of choice and contingency in human life and in the stories we construct about our lives and the world. With the intelligence, gracefulness, and gentle irony we have come to expect of Penelope Lively's fiction, Cleopatra's Sister illuminates the age-old dance of myth and reality in a novel that sparkles with wit, humor, and keen insight into the storytelling faculty of the human mind.
Favorite quote:

it is always perceived as offensive to prefer to read a book than to talk to someone.

The Independent says, "even if it fails to be one of Penelope Lively's most resonant books, Cleopatra's Sister still figures emphatically as one of her most engaging." The LA Times closes with this: "Although Lively's light touch enhances the situation, she doesn't attempt to neutralize it. We're amused and entertained, but our delight is tinged with an increasing frisson of discomfort, a dimension that makes "Cleopatra's Sister" a special sort of diversion."

Publishers Weekly opens with this:
Surely this authoritatively controlled, highly accomplished novel, British author Lively's 10th (her Moon Tiger won the Booker), will increase her audience of discriminating readers here. Written with grace and clarity, and luminous with insights about the human condition, it is as timely as the evening news and as eternal as the most classic love story.
Kirkus Reviews concludes, "This is amusing in the urbane British way, satiric without ever testing the limits of credibility, larkish but not fluffy--in short, more of the Lively right stuff."

I have blog posts on these other of her books:
1989 Passing On
1991 City of the Mind
2003 The Photograph
2007 Consequences


  1. Another intriguing title. I'm not a romance reader, but like when the romance is just part of the story, e.g. Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series

    1. Yes, romance just isn't my thing at all, but relationships as part of the story... that's a different thing :)

  2. This book sounds right up my alley. I am going to check it out as I have never read any of this author. Which one of hers do you like the best?

    1. I'd have trouble picking a favorite. I think Moon Tiger was the first one I read (because it had won an award) and now I just pick up what I find by her. I love the way she writes.

  3. Sounds like an engaging storyline and one that I would enjoy, and I haven't read it - yay 😀. Thanks for the recommendation and Happy Sunday! J 😊 x

    1. I hope you enjoy it :) She's a wonderful writer.

  4. This sounds as much a mystery as a love entanglement. From what you have shared, this sounds like an excellent read.

    1. It's a bit unusual, I think. I always enjoy her.