The Love Artist
By Jane Alison
Two offenses ruined me: a poem and an error. –Ovid, Tristia 2.207I gave you your life.
Now you’re wondering – will I take it, too? – Ovid, Medea, surviving fragment
There are so many things that I have been able to sink my teeth into about Jane Alison’s book The Love Artist. It is a very different kind of book and narrative than I have ever read, and the two main characters are unique. It was a challenging adventure, I didn’t know a lot about this period in history, about the poet or his poetry in which the story centers, or about Greek or Roman mythology. The author is a studied person, I watched a lecture she gave about the book and her depth of knowledge and thought on the subject shined through everything she had to say. She holds degrees from Princeton and Stanford in classic literature, I felt this was apparent in her writing. These were all good aspects of the story for me. I love learning from the books I read, I studied over the pages, looked up things I didn’t understand or wanted to know more about, and delved into the depth of the text as well as soaked up the uncommon characteristics of the characters. Especially Xenia, she was unique in physical and internal traits. The book was only 240 pages long, but it felt much longer. It is not a light read that you take to the beach, it is one that is better studied and thought over.
“It was Ovid, what Ovid did. He could transform matter into words that float in air and are held on the breath, that are etched into wax, drawn onto papyrus again and again so that they could then slip through the eyes or the ears of others and be absorbed and believed, enrapturing, and go on and on that way, never diminishing in strength, not after centuries, millennia. Words that form an ephemeral world, hovering between page and dreaming eyes, eternal.She felt as if she were dissolving, sea foam.
For what Ovid made, she finally saw: what he made was the quinta essential."
-Jane Alison, The Love Artist
The Prologue opens with Ovid’s exile to the Black Sea during the reign of Augustus Caesar, and chapter one begins with a year prior to that exile. Ovid takes a vacation to the Black Sea, comes across Xenia swimming in a pond in the woods, and is immediately enamored with her. Xenia was found in a basket by the sea as an infant and was trained as a Pharmaka – person who deals in medicines, a Magus – person who deals in magic, and an Alchemist – person who practices a concern principally with discovering methods for transmuting base metals into gold and with finding a universal solvent and an elixir of life.
Ovid is drawn to her for these reasons, and she to him because of his reputation as a famed poet. They end up traveling back to Rome together, where it is dangerous and illegal for her to practice her arts, and living together at Ovid’s house. He begins to write his masterpiece Medea, which is really what this story centers on. It was supposed to be his best work, but only two lines survive from it, the reason in actuality is a mystery, Alison imagines what could have been the reason in this tale. Ovid ends up with Julia as his patroness, the granddaughter of Augustus whom hates her life as part of the imperial family, this makes Xenia suspicious and jealous. Xenia wants Ovid to write about her, she wants to live on in his words, Ovid wants Xenia to tell him if his words will live on after his death, this is his deepest concern and he believes she can tell him. It is a struggle between them, she wants to know what he writes, he wants to know his future, neither will tell the other and their relationship becomes more and more strained because of it. Xenia becomes pregnant, but with the rift and suspicions already forming between them it just makes matters worse. The end was a surprise to me, I will leave it that way for anyone that might want to read it.
I appreciated that Alison kept Xenia believable. Although Xenia was what some considered a “witch”, I never felt like she did anything that couldn’t be possible, at least that she couldn’t have felt were possible at the time. She didn’t make things grow or move, or change one thing into another, or bring about someone’s demise through her powers of thought. The things she was able to do, or thought she was able to do were much more subtle. She thought she could heal people with her herbs and techniques, this was long before modern medicine and herbs and techniques were all they had. She had “visions” or dreams, or feelings about things she thought people were, or what their future was going to be, but it was never truly substantiated that the things she saw came true, so maybe she could maybe she couldn’t. She could sense things that had happened, or were going to happen, but never in a grandiose way, in a way we would call intuition in today’s time. She loved plants and mixing substances, but so do a lot of people so it all made sense, stayed grounded in believability.
I also enjoyed the details of the surroundings in the story. The mosaic tiles that were described on the floors of the houses in intricate shapes, patterns, and scenes. The pictures painted on the walls. The mermaid doorknob that Xenia had at the Black Sea and took with her to Rome. The way the pebbles crunched on the beaches of the Black Sea, or the salty air around its shores. The clothes and accessories the people wore, the way they styled their hair, and the long hours spent hanging around in the baths or draped on couches at parties in Rome. Her descriptions brought the time period and setting to life.
I absolutely loved learning about Ovid, while Xenia is fictional Ovid is not. I have ordered two translations of his Metamorphoses and cannot wait to adventure through them. Any book that brings me as much knowledge and interest in a subject that I otherwise would have known nothing about or even realized I would be interested in is a favorite for me. Alison is obviously a very intelligent, skilled, thoughtful writer/person, I admire that in her.
I would recommend this for anyone who would also enjoy all of the things I have mentioned above, and has a taste for historical fiction. With all of that being said I will also say that if you don’t know much about mythology, Ovid, and even a little Roman times geography, and don’t care to look up words or subjects you are unfamiliar with, if you just want a light read and fun story you probably won’t like this. I can see how a reader that just likes to be told a story would be lost and not care much about digging deeper. She does assume the reader knows more about the subject than I think your average person does. If you do like to study your literature though, I think you will find it worthwhile, treasure of a read.
P.S. Did I seriously forget to mention this cover?! I LOVE this cover. The fierce look on the woman’s face is palpable. If I had known nothing about this book and only caught a glimpse of the cover I would have wanted to read it. Kudos to Susan Mitchell the Cover Designer, and Sanjay Kothari the photographer. I couldn’t find the models name but she did a great job embodying Xenia. Happy Reading!