The Last Girls of Pompeii
The year is 79 A.D. and though we the reader know Mount Vesuvius is set
to rain death and destruction on the city of Pompeii, Julia and her
family are blissfully unaware that their home is built in the shadow of a
volcano. Though Julia is destined never to marry due to a birth defect
that has left her with a shriveled arm, she still finds herself wrapped
up in the drama of wedding plans as her older sister prepares to marry.
Julia is dragged along as her mother consults prophets and seers to
determine the date of the wedding. The verdict is always the same: the
date selected is surrounded by bad omens. Unbeknown to Julia, her
family is also hard at work planning a future for Julia, though their
plans are far from ideal. As Julia struggles with her own troubled
future, her slave and companion Sura discovers she is to be sold as a
concubine. Together, the girls attempt to stop the plans set for them
and create futures of their own choosing.
Both Julia and Sura are sympathetic characters whose experiences are
equally engrossing. While their situations are very different, they
both struggle with a lack of freedom to determine their futures. The
author successfully wove together a host of historical facts with
vibrant characters to create a story that was informative, sympathetic,
and compulsively readable. Though Julia does mention she notices
oddities with the city's plumbing, tremors, and a sulfurous odor, she
does not go beyond occasional observation. The story instead focuses on
the trials these girls face in their historical time period.
Where the book loses stars is in the writing. Ideally, this book
would have been written in the first person with Julia as the narrator.
Instead, the book is written in the subjective third person with the
main perspective primarily Julia's, but occasionally breaking into
Sura's perspective. This makes for awkward reading. The uneven focus
between Julia and Sura also makes the narrative awkward, especially
because there is little balance or structure separating when Julia's
perspective dominates or when it switches to Sura.
These problems interfered significantly with my ability to become
fully immersed in the story. It seemed like the author originally chose
the third person narrative style with a focus on Julia, but realized
partway through that this style wouldn't work for the scenes she wanted
to write with Sura. Instead of reworking her story a little to give Sura
equal "stage time" and balance out the narration style (alternating
narrators/chapters would have been ideal), she decided to just randomly
switch perspectives whenever it was convenient to her with little regard
to how this actually affected the flow of the story. As a reader,
sloppy approaches like this are irritating because they show a lack of
effort on the author's part. These complaints are enough for me to lower
the rating, but I do still recommend this book, so a solid 3 Â½ stars.
One final note: the library I took this book out of had it
classified as juvenile literature. Likewise, Amazon recommends ages 9-12
as the target audience. I disagree. There are numerous mentions of sex,
most crude and a number in the context of sex slaves. From an
historical fiction standpoint, these depictions were accurate and
welcome, but they struck me as a little more mature than the recommended
age ranges. Young adult seems a more appropriate classification than
Reprinted here with author's (my) permission.