Carol's Reviews > The Dream of Scipio

The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears
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's review
Oct 09, 08

Recommended to Carol by: Sandy
Recommended for: Dad, for the interesting interweaving of history
Read in October, 2008

I can't remember the last time I was so happy to be finished reading a book! This took what felt like an eternity to read. The beginning is so slow, that I set it down and read two other books before picking it back up (which I did because I love the person that recommended it to me and respected that he wanted me to read it).

About halfway through it did pick up, but with difficulty. It is a trio of interwoven stories following academic Julien in the 20th century (WWII) who is studying the poet Olivier in the 14th century (the black plague) who tries to figure out a philosophical manuscript written by Manlius of the 5th Century (the fall of the Roman Empire).

WWII, black plague and fall of the Roman Empire should tell you all you need to know about the happiness of this book. There isn't any. It is one of the only books I've read in which all the heros and heroines are dead by the end of the book and some not in the kindest ways. (Think that's a spoiler? Think again. It's clear on page one that people are dead. (Again, a clue to the happiness of this book.)

The difficulty in the trio of stories is how Pears skips from one time line to the other. Very often he neglects to name who the next section is about right away, so you read on thinking you are still reading about Julien when after a minute of confusion (which you really do not need in this richly philosophical and over-intellectualized book) you realize you're reading about Manlius or Olivier or vice versa. This is such a juvenile mistake in writing to me that I'm amazed at the numerous "great book" comments that covered the copy I had. The other problem was that I'd be getting into one story line and he would suddenly switch to another. I even found myself flipping ahead to see when I'd get back to the story I was interested in.

The book is highly intellectual. The main characters are all thinkers. It is, to me, a study in how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Which is more virtuous ~ killing one innocent to save many innocents or allowing many to die for the sake of one? Heavy questions, which at another point in my life I may have appreciated the journey of exploring more, but definitely not an easy read with three kids constantly interupting. (I could only concentrate on this book when there were absolutely no other interuptions - the kids in bed, the tv and radio off - hence the reason it took so long to read.)

Why three stars then? What's good about it? It is an incredibly thought-provoking book. The juxtaposition, parallels and interweaving of the story lines is complex, fascinating (for any history lover, that is) and thoughtful. Not only did Pears have to think through the history of all the characters, he had to think through how their history could be misinterpreted by the generations that followed. This could not have been an easy book to plot and think through, let alone write. It may be worth reading just to see the skill with which he does it ~ the development and interweaving of history. At times I wondered how Pears could describe something with such seemingly accurate detail. I often found myself wondering which parts of this fiction were real, although his manner of telling it is sometimes distracting.

Finally, I can see why my friend appreciated it and why he wanted me to read it. If I couldn't see that, then I definitely would have given this far fewer stars. I would like to think that I could get much more from it by reading it again, but frankly, I'd much rather move on to something else on my ever-growing "to read" list.
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