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28 December 2014

Susan Howatch: The Rich Are Different

"There's beggary in the love that can be reckoned"
The first thing that hit me pretty quickly was that Susan Howatch has retold the classic love story/melodrama of Julius Caesar's and Mark Antony's relationship with Cleopatra in a more modern setting during the 1920's and 1930's in the US and England.

It's a neat concept to start with a plot based on history (as Howatch did with her very popular family sagas - Cashelmara, Penmarric and Wheel of Fortune where the plots were based on things that happened in the Plantagenet era). It's even neater when the author is able to use the plot and the characters so seamlessly to create a compelling, well-written and absorbing modern novel. I must admit that I did start to look for known historical characters and events but that probably increased my enjoyment of the book.

Paul Van Zale (Caesar) is a powerful, rich and amoral New York investment banker with several marriages and many mistresses. When he is in England to fix up problems with his bank's local branch he comes face to face with Dinah Slade (Cleopatra) when she is delivered in a hamper (not rolled in a carpet) to his office. Dinah is an amazing and intelligent woman in her own right and so different to the many women that Paul has met in the past that it undermines his understanding of love.

While the plot is ancient (and you will enjoy matching the characters to historical ones) the story is a very modern one covering the 1920's and 1930's in the US and England and the characters are compelling and fascinating. They are driven by greed, cunning, ambition, revenge, love (inside and outside of marriage), need for security and hope for the lives of their many children. Divorce and births out of wedlock abound as the main characters plot their destinies.

All in all this was a very interesting book that absorbed my attention. The sequel where the offspring, especially Cornelius (Octavius) take centre stage may be similarly compelling, but I don't think it will hold my attention as well as this fascinating modern re-creation of one of the most passionate and dramatic stories of the ancient world.

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