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Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

November 2, 2011

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore
Stella Duffy
Penguin Group
October 2011 352 pages

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore is exactly what I want from historical fiction. There’s enough background and good description to give a sense of the time period: Roman banquets and opulent theater performances; the Blues and the Greens, political factions warring in the streets and in the Senate; the emergence of Christianity and navigating a faith between Roman and Christian gods and cultures. A history lesson wrapped around a very good story, with plenty of adventure, determination and romance. I wish more historical fiction were written with this balance of research and narrative. Heck, I wish more history nonfiction were written with this kind of attention to story as well as fact! With enough historical background to serve the way the story unfolds and draws you along into characters’ lives.

Theodora and the other characters in her world are crafted with the right balance of historical detail and emotional complexity. As a young dancer, Theodora is mouthy to authority but devoted to her family. From the very first scenes of young Theodora saving a scene by playing it for laughs, it’s easy to connect with her. To laugh at her antics, and love her the way her sisters do, and her mentors do. She’s so alive in these pages, it’s easy to see how she won over theatrical audiences. And yes, reading about Theodora chucking her successful theatrical career for love, I wanted to yell at her as much as Sofia did, for throwing away a good life and turning away from her friends.

Duffy does a good job of capturing Theodora’s perspective, so that even her most foolish choices make a certain kind of sense. Theodora’s character is a mix of fierceness, love, and figuring out her spiritual journey. Her interior life made sense to me, spiritually as well as emotionally. It can’t be easy to write historical fiction that captures emotions this well. And I’m also impressed with the way the spiritual side of Theodora’s evolution played out. Writing about faith is tricky, striking the right balance between the personal nature and the sense of something larger, without getting into cliche or preachiness. Duffy nailed it as well as she did the sometimes smutty fun of Theodora’s more sensual and opulent Roman life.
All in all, this is a nicely balanced book: historical fact and good story; faith and earthiness.

My only misgiving about Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore, is that I wish I had requested it for BlogHer Book Club as a paper book, instead of a NetGalley to read on Kindle. I can think of so many people I want to pass it along to: people I know who studied Classics in school and like the time period; my uncle the Latin teacher; and people who enjoy a well-crafted romance or adventure. There’s nothing for it, I’ll probably have to buy a paper copy.

Disclaimer Statement: I received my review copy from BlogHer Book Club. I am being compensated for my fair and honest review, no matter what my opinion.

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