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Jane Allison

The Love Artist
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001
Barnes & Noble


As the prologue of this ambitious and interesting but sometimes tedious novel opens, Ovid is being escorted out of Rome by soldiers sent by Augustus, the start of a journey that will take him to (and never back from) Tomis, on the shore of the Black Sea. The epilogue looks at his life there a year after he arrives. The main part of the novel is a flashback to the time he first met, out among the Phasians on the shore of the same sea, a bewitching and hauntingly beautiful woman, Xenia, who will becomes the focus of his attention, positive and negative. Allison quotes Tristia 2.207, where Ovid says of his banishment, "Two offenses ruined me, a poem and an error." and the only surviving fragment of his tragedy Medea, "I gave you your life. Now you're wondering -- will I take it, too?" Other attempts to explain Ovid's relegatio are legion, while attempts to explain the disappearance of his Medea are few and sketchy. Allison's undertaking to link the two provides a unique way of seeing possibilities, but the initial premise of Ovid meeting this creature so like one of his creations in the just-released Metamorphoses and bringing her back to Rome to be not merely a muse but a model lacks external support (which is not so surprising, given our many gaps) and internal plausibility. This would not be (and is not) a fatal flaw, but what Allison does with the plot will limit her audience severely to those who favor the mystico-psychological novelover the novel of action, local color or wit. I guess I would class The Love Artist as a tragic novel, partly because of what befalls Ovid and Julia, grand-daughter of Augustus, but I never developed much care for either of them. Xenia comes out of it best of all, and I did care for her as a character, but she and Ovid both behave foolishly in their actions and feelings toward each other, in ways that make the reader want to reach into the story, give them both a shake, and say, "Come on; be sensible or caring." The view of Augustus as a stony old man is ok, though not the only way to present him, but the repeated assertion of his having brought about the suicides or ordered the deaths of 100s of senators after he became Augustus seems strange That Julia might feel herself used by her grandfather and want some revenge also seems reasonable, but the way she went about it is bizarre in the extreme. Throughout the novel one is prompted to see Xenia in the role of Medea, though readers unfamiliar with the Medea story may not grasp this, since Xenia repeatedly sees herself as Alcestes, Psyche or Daedalus. It is interesting for readers familiar with Ovid to see Ovidian characters, from the love poetry or the Metamorphoses, crop up in the story as characters or background art, but it is hard to imagine Ovid needing a real-life model for Medea in order to write his tragedy or willingly and coldly pushing along events so Medean outcomes, including the murder of 2 babies, would result. This isn't the Ovid most readers of his works come away with, so it's hard to believe in him as a character when so presented. He may have been an abominable person (just as the kindly old man persona of Robert Frost was a conscious fraud), but the depiction just doesn't ring true. We know from our own world that disastrous misunderstandings between friends and lovers can come about from slight errors and chance mistakes, but there is so much of this throughout the Ovid-Xenia relationship that we want to say, "Wake up. Look at what's happening. Tell the whole truth or ask about the other person's actions." But that doesn't happen. If you like McCullough, Saylor, Davis, you will probably not like this novel. If you like Yourcenar, Pater, Broch, this might be your style. The opening paragraph of the text, a single sentence, is wonderfully enticing, but it is not typical of the entire novel. There is nothing indecorous in the telling and the concept is interesting enough to have the reader want to see how it is carried out, but the movement is slow and the interactions among the characters often annoying. I certainly would like to see another novel by Allison, with an equally intriguing concept, but with an execution that keeps me moving along more willingly from page to page. Fred Mench 8/2001

- Fred Mench, 8/1/2001

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