Monday, September 1, 2014

Review: The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

Review: The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

At one point forever ago, the lady who babysat me when I was a kid (yes, I still talk to her) mentioned that the The Last of the Wine was one of her favorite books.  The cover had some Greek guys on it and it seemed like it might be vaguely Dionysian, so I put it on my Amazon wishlist then completely forgot about it. 

Every once in a while I’ll go through my wishlist and buy a bunch of used books.  I did this a lot when I got my social work text books.  I'd buy one super expensive text book and then three or four super cheap novels or Pagan books.  Somehow it made the sting of the cost of textbooks a little less painful.

So I ended up with The Last of the Wine years ago and I finally picked it up at the beginning of the summer and read it little by little over the past few months.  It’s a pretty dense book and actually took me a while to get through, and while it took a long time for me to get into it, I ended up really enjoying it and I’m glad I read it.
MaryRenault is an English novelist known for her novels set in ancient Greece.  She’s not a trained Classicist, but she has an incredibly extensive knowledge of the ancient world that her not having formal University training in the Classics doesn’t seem to matter.  Renault is a pretty extraordinary woman, and I hope to read more of her works at some point (I’m especially interested in her stuff about Alexander the Great or Theseus.)

The Last of the Wine tells the story of Alexias, an athletic Athenian youth who becomes one of the students of Socrates.  The book describes his tenuous relationship with his father, the controversies surrounding his relationship with Socrates, politics of Athens, his service in the military, and his relationship with his lover and best friend, Lysis. 

I learned so much about Athenian culture and politics during the close of the Golden Age of Athens.  I hadn’t realized how much my impression of ancient Greece is really just my impression of Athens in the 5th century BCE.  I think I had this monolithic perception of the ancient world because so much writing, lore, and knowledge that we have comes from this one specific and short time period.
But as much as I thought I knew, I really didn’t know anything.  I often had long conversations with my husband about the stuff that was happening in the book.  (As a Pagan, it’s incredibly useful to have a Classicist around.)  I didn’t want to read too much extra stuff because I didn’t want to get spoilers, but Renault isn’t the most clear with her writing so I found myself confused pretty often.  She’s really subtle about some things, which is cute and charming when it comes to two Greek athletes having sex on a secluded beach, but it can be aggravating when she makes a reference to somehuge political controversy that’s happening in the city and I have no idea what she’s talking about.  So, having prior knowledge of 5th century Athens might be useful before reading this book, or maybe just read a lot of Plato (which I have not done.)
Overall, The Last of the Wine was a charming and romantic story, full of realism, emotions, and tragedy.  I pretty much loved it, and I can’t wait until I get a chance to read more from Mary Renault.  Renault herself seems like an amazing woman, and I appreciate her daringness, her skill, and her artistry. 

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