Review

Cleopatra: A Life

by Stacy Schiff

From the mysterious and teasing cover image to the elegant and informative writing between the covers, CLEOPATRA is one more example of why Stacy Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize winner. You might think you know everything there is to know about this infamous Egyptian ruler, but, believe me, you don’t. Cleopatra was a murdering, adulterous control freak who also brought some great innovations to the world and is remembered for her ability to be a femme fatale. This is a limited view, though, as she was so much more that this book can barely contain the varied spirit of her.

"CLEOPATRA is a masterwork --- there is so much information being imparted and yet it never feels stale, fussy or stiff."

Did you know that she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean? That she poisoned her middle sibling? And that she only had sexual relations with two men --- both of whom were married to someone else at the time (as well as being serious political allies)? There isn’t one page that you will turn to in this sophisticated biography where you won’t be shaking your head --- and trying to get that antiquated picture of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra out of your head to make room for all the new things you will have learned about her.

Personally I love girl-power stories, whether they’re real or fiction. And this is one, but it is a cautionary tale as well. What happens when you take your power so seriously? What happens when you play with the boys on your own turf? And what would Cleopatra have done if she knew that her feminine wiles would become the most highly-lauded of her many extreme talents? The woman writhing on the ground with an asp reaching out to finish her off isn’t going to be an icon for this important political figure any longer.

CLEOPATRA is a masterwork --- there is so much information being imparted and yet it never feels stale, fussy or stiff. Like all good writing should, the book flows freely and makes readers feel as if they are engrossed in a truly engaging conversation with a new friend at a cocktail party --- the kind of discussion where all you can do is shake your head and say, “Wow! That’s so interesting!” and actually mean it.

Congratulations to Stacy Schiff for another exacting yet highly readable tome, sure to nestle into bestseller lists and stay there for a while until they hire Anne Hathaway to play the young queen and make a new blockbuster from the story. I’m already in line…

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on December 22, 2010

Cleopatra: A Life
by Stacy Schiff

  • Publication Date: September 6, 2011
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316001945
  • ISBN-13: 9780316001946