Sunday, March 13, 2011

Vestal Virgin (Suzanne Tyrpak)

Overall: 4.6      ҉
  • Plot: 4.5/5
  • Originality: 4.7/5
  • Language: 4.8/5
  • Believability: 4.2/5
Vestal Virgin by Suzanne Tyrpak

Elissa Rubria Honoria is a Vestal Virgin--priestess of the sacred flame, a visionary, and one of the most powerful women in Rome. Vestals are sacrosanct, sworn to chastity on penalty of death, but the emperor, Nero, holds himself above the law. He pursues Elissa, engaging her in a deadly game of wits and sexuality. Or is Elissa really the pursuer? She stumbles on dark secrets. No longer trusting Roman gods, she follows a new god, Jesus of Nazareth, jeopardizing her life and the future of The Roman Empire.
Historical Fiction
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When considering Roman empires, many will think of emperors, gladiators, chariot races, and war. Fewer will spare a thought for the vestal virgins, women dedicated to chastity and the worship of Roman gods. In an appropriately titled Vestal Virgin, Suzanne Tyrpak explores the experiences of one such woman in the midst of Nero's hedonistic reign.

In Vestal Virgin, Tyrpak combines elements of Greek tragedy, modern storytelling, and Freudian psychology. Readers are gradually led through the destruction of a family, the religious awakening of two involuntarily celibate individuals, and the vicissitudes of a mentally unstable monarch. (My mental construct of the latter bore a striking resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus in the movie Gladiator—I blame the hubris and the unhealthy sexual behaviors, but I digress.)

Tyrpak's story focuses on more than Elissa, the vestal virgin; the book encompasses a main cast of roughly a dozen, a hefty number that could very well have been confusing or lackluster. She does them justice, however, developing each to show his or her strengths, weaknesses, and changes of heart. I confess a certain love-hate relationship with both Nero and Flavia—love, because they are spectacularly written, and hate because of their vileness. Even Justinus, the upright hero, bears a darker side, a vindictiveness with which Elissa also struggles. The humanness of Tyrpak's creations is impressive, and I find myself caught between wanting to know them better and wanting to throttle them. The only complaint that I have is the almost pat serving of just desserts, but it is reasonably presented and so I'll consider that a stylistic preference.

The pacing of the book is a constant, sure-footed canter, fast enough to appease the impatient and slow enough to do justice to the plot and the characters. There is a tension throughout that is well worth savoring, a sort of dread that fills the reader as things start to go wrong. The story itself is addictive: I was traipsing around London all day and still found myself picking up the Kindle during short waits and whatnot, just to see what would happen next. The plot is well thought-out, with only one major revelation about Elissa and some aspects of the ending that left me wanting; the former, because it seemed to come from left field, and the latter because I was expecting a true Greek tragedy and received a series of events that may have been a bit soft.

As far as the the historicity of the tale, I am ill-equipped to judge details, having limited knowledge of the life of vestal virgins. What I can say is that for the reasonably educated lay person, the story is believable enough, without any glaring anachronisms to mar the experience. Word choice in dialogue is up to the author, since the Romans did not speak English. Still, she kept it conservative, which preserved the feel of being in the past, as opposed to our contraction-ridden present.

Speaking of conservatism, there is a certain lack thereof when it comes to sexual vulgarities in this novel. Tyrpak keeps them just vague enough that I was still willing to read through them, but they are still base and somewhat disturbing. There is also the question of religious material as she introduces Justinus' mentoring relationship with Paul of Tarsus during the latter man's interment in Rome. In terms of controversies, this has the more potential to be controversial, as both Justinus and Elissa began to lean on Jesus of Nazareth instead of Roman gods. Thankfully, Tyrpak limits the religious content to the characters' internal battles and does not twist the plot to promote one religion over the other. It is a fine  tightrope that she walks.

Vestal Virgin is a surprisingly enjoyable and enthralling bit of fiction. It is well worth the read for any who crave a slice of tragedy or want to spend a few hours lost in the intricate political dealings of Rome and its megalomaniac of an emperor.


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