The Confessions of a Young Nero by Margaret George

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“Let them call me cruel. Better that than dead.”

I have had a strong desire to know more about Rome’s emperors and history ever since I read Captivity in January, for not only am I entranced by all things Italian, I like to have a reference point for the New Testament. (Which I read regularly.)

Margaret George is a new author to me. I have not read any of her previous novels: Elizabeth 1; Helen of Troy; Mary, Called Magdalene; The Memoirs of Cleopatra; Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles; The Autobiography of Henry VIII. But, in reading The Confessions of a Young Nero, I find her research to be as exhaustive as I could imagine it to be.

She paints a portrait of Nero which is compassionate and sympathetic to what must have been a truly anxious life. From the very first chapter, his uncle (Caligula) attempts to murder him by throwing him overboard at the age of three. His mother, Agrippina, is no better. She is a manipulative, conceited woman whose allegiance lies with whomever can give her the most power. It is a wonder Nero grew up to be emperor at all, with such attempts on his life and enemies within his own family.

We catch a glimpse of his sorrows and disappointments, his life and achievements, his hunger for music and affection through Margaret George’s eyes. The novel is easy to read, filled with historical research, and fascinating in its portrayal of Nero’s life.

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The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick

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What a wondrously imagined recreation of the lives of MFK Fisher, her husband, Al, and his best friend, Dilwyn Parrish. I feel as though I have traveled from Laurel Canyon, California to Dijon, France, and then on to Vevey, Switzerland with them, eating the sumptuous food and experiencing the angst that they endured from their impossible arrangement.

Ashley Warlick does not cast aspersions; her writing is completely objective in its telling of this love triangle.

There were a thousand ways to think about it: they would live like a family, like monks, like roommates, like freaks. He (Dilwyn) loved them both, and this was the only way to do it. He shuffled on the cobblestones; he was drunk. He doubted he could stay drunk forever, but in his slurriness he could see a dumb kind of chance for this to all work out. The three of them would make art, maybe great art. p. 216

For Dilwyn Parrish is an author and illustrator, Al Fisher is a writer, and his wife Mary Frances would become the famous author MLK Fisher.

Dilwyn, nicknamed Tim, and his young wife Gigi were friends with the Fishers in California. When Mary Frances slid herself into Tim’s bed one night, their relationship was irrevocably changed, even if Al didn’t quite know it yet.

Gigi went on to follow her lover, while Tim and Mary Frances formed an ever closer, and passionate bond. Their story reminds me of Hemingway, who laid first with one lover than another, trying to have it all without acknowledging that sacrifice is part of what polishes relationships into jewels. And now I’ve just done what Warlick did not, put my own opinion on an arrangement that could never work. For me, or these friends and lovers.

What does MFK Fisher write? When asked by a publishing house this was her perhaps fictitious answer: “Hunger,” she said. “I write about hunger for all kinds of things.”

In The Arrangement, Ashley Warlick depicted this hunger perfectly.

Circling The Sun by Paula McLain

Circling The SunYou can have a life of drama, scandal, and excitement.

Or, you can have a life of safety, comfort, and peace.

But, I doubt very much that you can have both.

Every time I chastised myself for being monotonous in comparison to Beryl Markham, I realized that she paid dearly for her life of adventure. Hers was not the life of a comforting childhood, growing up within a secure family unit, then finding a loving husband of her own. Instead, her mother left Beryl and her father in Africa when she went back to England with Beryl’s brother, Dickie. And so Beryl’s life of strong independence, embellished with a wild side, began at four years of age.

She was allowed exploration with the animals and freedom of dress, for she had no mother to correct her behavior into proper, ladylike straits. Instead of learning to crook a finger when holding a teacup, she learned to tighten her legs around the belly of a horse. She became daring and bold and brave. Beryl Markham was not a woman to be contained, and as I read, I admired her sense of adventure which brought her fame and glamor along with notoriety and pain.

Having grown up with a father whose business was horses, it is not surprising that Beryl Clutterbuck trained horses and raced them. She married Jock Purves at only seventeen years of age, and it is no wonder that their marriage could not be sustained. For really, the only man that Beryl truly loved was Denys Finch Hatton, a man already involved with Baroness Karen Blixen, and far too committed to his own freedom to be of much support to any woman.

It’s interesting that the film Out of Africa leaves Beryl Markham out of the story altogether, but Paula McLain reveals a more complete  picture of that complicated love story. Apparently, Beryl loved Denys with all her heart just as Karen did, and while Denys was committed to her as much as he could allow himself to be, he found room in his life to fit Beryl in around the edges.

They seemed of a similar spirit; undaunted by other’s opinions, or constrained by a conventional lifestyle, they sought adventure even when it meant danger. Safaris, horses, aero planes…these were things to be conquered, if not necessary elements to make one’s life richer.

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After finishing the book last evening, I searched amongst my shelves until I found Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Karen Blixen) and West With The Night by Beryl Markham. (Of which Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Did you read Beryl Markham’s book…she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer….it really is a bloody wonderful book.”) These are the books that Paula McLain makes me want to reread.

Circling the Sun has brought Beryl Markham to life and made Africa such a vibrant place you can see why those who loved it had to reside there.  Just as The Paris Wife, this is historical fiction of remarkable power. It is the very reason one picks up anything written by Paula McLain.

What The Lady Wants by Renee Rosen

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The story of Marshall Field’s phenomenal success, and adulterous affair, is given to us through the eyes of his mistress in this work of historical fiction.

Renee Rosen’s heroine, the real-life Delia Caton, brings us to Chicago in the glorious nineteenth century, beginning with the Great Chicago Fire and going on to the time it hosted the World’s Fair. Included in its history are the men I’ve heard about all my life: Swift, Palmer, Armour, and of course Field himself.

Marshall Field is a legend to any shopper who ever lived or visited Chicago. His magnificent store, now replaced by Macy’s on State Street, was second to none and forged through his indomitable spirit.

My very first job was at Marshall Field’s and Company. I remember clearly the black and white training video we had to watch before going on the floor as salespeople. His mantra was made very clear to us: “Give the lady what she wants.”

But I never knew that he had an affair with Delia Spencer Caton. An affair which lasted more than thirty years and caused plenty of distress, along with the joy, in their lives.

Nor did I know that the Loop earned its nickname because Marshall Field had the cable cars loop through that area of Chicago and stop in front of his store.

What The Lady Wants is a richly imagined recreation, interspersed with fact, of how their lives may have been. It is told through the eyes of Delia, and it is her perspective that is the focus.

I enjoyed it for the history of a city I’ve known all my life; others may enjoy it for the romance and scandal. In either case, we have a clearer picture of Marshall Field himself, and the city he helped build, once we turn the last page.