Stacy Schiff took on a daunting task and for the most part, succeeded. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of information about Cleopatra out there, and much of what we think we know is colored by the agendas of ancient historians as well as more contemporary storytellers who preferred to paint Cleopatra as a scheming seductress rather than as an astute politician. Stacy managed to give us a richly detailed book-length account of Cleopatra's life, a skeptical eye through which to view much of the available information about Cleopatra, a feeling for who Cleopatra might have been as a person without being overly speculative, and actually, a pretty good story.
Let's take the last part of that first. Much of the time, this book read like a good novel. I'm not normally a history person, but Stacy made the time period and the events of Cleopatra's life come alive for me. She evoked my interest in Cleopatra's contemporaries as well, particularly crazy Herod whom I learned about in school from the Jewish perspective but whose connection with Cleopatra was previously unknown to me. Cleopatra -- what a character! What a love story! And talk about family dysfunction! This puts V. C. Andrews
But this was better than a novel, because it offered some intellectual stimulation and food for thought. It was fascinating to learn about the various reports on Cleopatra and how they may have been colored. The politics of the time, the cultural perspectives on women, the yellow journalism which came to be accepted as fact in the absence of more objective material -- all of these were provocative and interesting to learn about.
Was this book perfect? Well, no. There were times when I felt Stacy got bogged down in unnecessary detail, perhaps using it as filler to make up for sparse source material in other, arguably more relevant areas. I can't say that I was fascinated 100% of the time -- maybe 90 or so. But that's pretty good for someone who's not normally into history and never gave Cleopatra much thought.
Ultimately, although other goodreads reviewers appear to have some bones to pick with this book and make valid points, I thought it was a really enjoyable read, entertaining without feeling like a waste of time.