The First Man in Rome | Critical Review by Carol E. Rinzler

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The First Man in Rome.
This section contains 925 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Carol E. Rinzler

SOURCE: "Roman Soap," in The New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1990, p. 19.

In the following review, Rinzler commends McCullough's research for The First Man in Rome but faults the novel for excessive length and slow plot development.

When I finally get around to writing the history of 20th-century literature, I plan to devote a chapter to the withering away of the story, the virtual disappearance of the literate page-turner that Wharton, O'Hara, Nabokov and Cheever used to toss off every few years.

The pickings aren't much fatter if you're willing to settle for novels merely zippy enough to see you through a bout with the flu. Judith Krantz and Dominick Dunne are beginning to tire. Scott Turow and Jonathan Kellerman don't write fast enough to fill the shelves that are emptied of new Stouts and Creaseys. Because the historical novel is in a similar state of disarray, flu sufferers and others in need of diversion have eagerly awaited Colleen McCullough's new meganovel. Alas, only accomplished potboiler skimmers are likely to have much fun with The First Man in Rome.

Based loosely on historical events, the new novel, unlike The Thorn Birds, Ms. McCullough's huge 1977 success, spans only a decade (110 to 100 B.C.); this is sufficient time, however, for the book's mostly upper-crust Romans to undergo sufficient change (love, hate, birth, death, triumph, tragedy and so forth) to hold the reader—at least through the sections that deal with private Romans rather than public Rome.

The book revolves around its eponymous hero, Gaius Marius—Rome's ablest general, a man destined to be six times a consul—and his wife, Julia, a grave, beautiful and steady aristocrat who makes a love match of a marriage arranged by her father for money. (Julia also turns out to be the aunt of Julius Caesar, who appears as a baby at the end of the novel. Presumably we will see more of him; according to an author's note, this book is only the first in a projected series.)

Ms. McCullough is terrific when she's writing about women. All of her female characters quiver with life; a patrician woman who falls in love with a man who spurns her; another who is starved by her brother until she submits to marriage with a man she hates; a third who finds her vocation as that Roman rarity, a working mother. A handful of Ms. McCullough's legion of men are also successful characters, notably Lucius Cornelius Sulla. When we meet him he is a bisexual, libertine patrician with no money, living off two women in a ménage à trois. But the sheer overpopulation of the male cast of characters fogs them with a perplexing sameness, at least if you don't accord commercial fiction the same attention you pay Plutarch. (Let's see, was that Marcus Livius Drusus who threw his political support to Marius 300 pages ago, or was it Marcus Aemilius Scaurus?)

The plot moves along smartly when there's a woman on stage and Ms. McCullough is writing about love, emotion or sex (the last quite tame). What slows the book down are the arid stretches, making up roughly half of its length, that deal with politics and military campaigns. Whenever Marius is with Julia, The First Man in Rome is utterly engaging; when he goes off to war or the Forum, cleaning you closets is a more exciting alternative. Sustaining even such momentum as this ambitious novel somehow attains is as difficult for Ms. McCullough as it would be for most. The last hundred-odd pages, trailing off into a weak and confusing ending, suggest that she was simply exhausted.

Adding to the boredom factor is the frequent awkwardness of Ms. McCullough's prose. Forget the constant lapses of grammar and diction. What makes The First Man in Rome eminently put-downable is the author's determination to shoehorn in as much of her research as possible, marring the book with bulky, obese passages. To choose just one:

"When Saturninus introduced his second agrarian law, the clause stipulating an oath burst upon the Forum like a clap of thunder; not a bolt of Jovian lightning, rather the cataclysmic rumble of the old gods, the real gods, the faceless gods, the numina. Not only was an oath required of every senator, but instead of the customary swearing in the temple of Saturn, Saturninus's law required that the oath be taken under the open sky in the roofless temple of Semo Sancus Dius Fidius on the lower Quirinal, where the faceless god without a mythology had only a statue of Gaia Caecllia—wife of King Tarquinius Priscus of old Rome—to humanize his dwelling." (Bet you didn't get through that on the first try.)

Despite such meanderings, Ms. McCullough requires 95 pages at the conclusion of the novel to display still more of her research in the form of a glossary. I rather enjoyed this lagniappe, as well as the several maps the author provides, although her drawings of the characters, interspersed among the chapters, are amateurish.

Perhaps if Ms. McCullough had written a longer glossary and a shorter novel she might have avoided the odd and unsatisfying alternation of gripping sections with others that make one's eyes glaze over. Could she have lingered so long with the military and political material as a play for a larger male audience than she had with The Thorn Birds? Whatever the answer, it would have been a great help if only the novel had been rounded out to an even 900 pages with one more brief appendix: a list of the pages the story was on.

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This section contains 925 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Carol E. Rinzler