Friday, July 25, 2014

Curses and Smoke: a novel of Pompeii by Vicky Alvear Shecter

Lucia Titurius is the young daughter of Lucius Titurius who owns a gladiator school in Pompeii. Lucia is betrothed to Vitulus, a patrician man forty-five years older than herself. Titurius's gladiator school has been failing since the death of his wife three years ago and he badly needs the money that Vitulus has agreed to provide in exchange for marrying Lucia. Lucia is horrified by the prospect of having to marry this man in four weeks time and is desperate to find a way out of the marriage.

Tag, the son of the head slave healer, Damocles, has only recently returned to Vitulus's household after a stay in Rome. During his time away, Tag has discovered his elderly father is no longer of sound mind, often forgetful and disoriented.  Tag wants Pontius, the overseer of the gladiator school, to allow him to train and fight as a gladiator in order to earn his freedom.

Lucia and Tag were childhood friends, often spending time playing outside the city walls in a small cave. Upon Tag's return both discover the other has matured and as they begin to renew their friendship, gradually the flame of love are stirred. The begin to meet regularly, taking walks in the woods where Tag gathers herbs and flowers for his medicines and where Lucia continues to observe the changes in the earth around Pompeii. These changes along with the frequent tremors suggest to Lucia that something dangerous is about to happen to this area.

Meanwhile, Lucia's friend, Cornelia, who is heavily pregnant, tries to help Lucia find a way out of her marriage to Vitulus. She suggests that Lucia flirt with the wealthy guest, Quintus Rutilius staying at Lucia's father's gladiator school. Quintus is the fifth son in a wealthy roman family and he has been sent to the gladiator school to shape up and stop his dissipated lifestyle.

Eventually Tag is allowed to train with the gladiators and is chosen as Quintus's sparing partner. One evening after dinner at Cornelia and Atyllus's home, where Lucia is ridiculed for her idea of trying to learn about , Tag reveals the truth about what happened to her mother three years earlier and curse placed on Titurius by his dying wife. This horrific revelation only makes Lucia more determined to leave her father's home with Tag. Tag however, feels deep conflict over having told Lucia what happened and comes to realize that he cannot leave his father to his fate in Titurius's household.

While Tag and Lucia are busying plotting to run away, Quintus has his own plans and succeeds in having Lucia betrothed to himself and her betrothal to Vitulus cancelled. For Lucia, this is almost a bad as her betrothal to Vitulus.She doesn't love Quintus anymore than she loves Vitulus.

When Quintus discovers Tag and Lucia love, he explains the true nature of his bizarre plan that involves Tag, himself and Lucia. Horrified they refuse to accept it. However, discovery by Titurius leads to Tag being chained in the household prison while Lucia is to be wed by nightfall to Quintus. However, everyone's plans, counterplans, hopes and dreams are changed forever when Vesuvius erupts.

Shecter has once again crafted a very well-written historical novel set against the back-drop of the Pompeii disaster in 79A.D. Those who have read Shecter's Cleopatra's Moon know well the historical detail this author fills her novel's with, enabling her to effectively set the stage in Curses and Smoke for the timeless story of forbidden love set against the backdrop of catastrophe. Detail about homes, fashion, hair styling, food, religious practices (Roman and Estrucan gods) and social structure are well integrated into the story, working to create an accurate picture life in a Roman city in the first century. This is no surprise since the author visited Pompeii and was fortunate to spend time with Mario Grimaldi, archeologist and professor at the University of Naples, Suor Orsola Benincasa.  My only complaint is that Shecter peppers her narratives with numerous Latin terms and names of Roman gods and goddesses that are unlikely to mean much to modern readers, especially since the novel does not have a glossary of terms at the back.

The storytelling is done by both Lucia and Tag in alternating chapters allowing readers to gain both perspectives. The characters are convincing and engaging. Lucia is an intelligent young woman who is the only surviving child, her brother having been killed in Germania and later on we learn, her sisters all being exposed and left to die by her hard-hearted father.  She refuses to accept her fate of being married to a much older man; she wants to choose her own fate in life, what she will do, where she will live and also her husband.  Instead she finds herself being sold to finance her father's business. Tages is kind and compassionate, descended from an noble Etruscan priest and healer whose family was sold into slavery after the conquest of the region by Rome.His desire for freedom echoes those of the many slaves who lived in the Roman empire. Their love, based on years of friendship isn't unrealistic, but it's likely a young Roman girl would not have risked everything for a slave.

The inclusion of a rather unusual character, Quintus Rutilius, a young bisexual Roman, provides a strange twist (which most readers will pick up on) to the storyline later on. Other interesting characters include the stern but kind-hearted gladiator Pontius, Castor a young impetuous boy whom Tag begins to instruct in the healing arts, Cornielia, Lucia's wealthy but insensitive friend and the dissipated, paunchy Vitulius.

The story of Pompeii, like the story of the sinking of the Titanic is one which we know the ending. The trick is to make it fresh and interesting, and Vicky Alvear Shecter does just that.

The back of the novel contains a detailed author's note on the date of the eruption, the eruption itself, the practice of exposing children, slavery and religion.

Book Details:
Curses and Smoke. A novel of Pompeii by Vicky Alvear Shecter
New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.     2014
324 pp.

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