THE PHILOSOPHER PRINCE

A young man battles ideological rifts and barbarian hordes in the Roman Empire in the mid-fourth-century CE.

  This novel, the sequel to Cast Not the Day (2009), continues the adventures of narrator Drusus, a British noble who is drawn into a struggle against emperor Constantius—son of Constantine, who Christianized the Roman Empire. For Waters, the expansion of Christianity signaled a rise in corrupt leadership and shallow moral judgments: Various bishops and other members of the faithful come off as arrogant scolds, clowns or pathetically passive souls. Drusus has his own reasons to remain an adherent of the Roman pagan ways, not least because they don’t pass judgment on his love for Marcellus, a fellow noble. So he throws his lot in with Julian, the “philosopher prince” of the book’s title, who’s charged with handling the empire’s western provinces. As Drusus joins campaigns through Gaul and across the Rhine, Julian’s army pushes back German barbarians. But Waters’ battle scenes are brief and, for him, a little beside the point; he dwells much more often on the palace intrigue involving Constantius’ effort to undo Julian’s successes. Drusus routinely praises the rigor of Julian’s Athenian philosophical training as the wellspring of his greatness, but there’s hardly enough philosophy in the novel to justify the title; Julian’s talent is largely a capacity for high-flown oratory whenever morale threatens to sink. For a novel with the geographical and temporal expanse of this one—the story spans from Britain to Constantinople between 355 and 361 —it can feel dispiritingly flat-footed and talky, preferring to focus on byzantine power struggles over taxation and troop strength. In the midst of it, the romance between Drusus and Marcellus, positioned as the emotional workhorse of this tale, is neglected.   I, Claudius this isn’t. Waters’ research is solid, but this would-be epic is dry and caricature-filled.    

 

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59020-718-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Overlook

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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