Book Review: Quo Vadis
“Didn’t they make a movie from this?” is probably not the most reliable prompt to pick up a book, but it seemed to have worked OK for me with Quo Vadis. Well, that and the nifty mosaic cover art, and the fact that it’s about Christians in Rome during the time of Nero. I’ve enjoyed a number of historical fiction books and movies dealing with the Roman emperors before and after Nero, but until now nothing actually with Nero himself, arguably the most psychotic of the Caesars. (Caligula is a close contender, but I think Nero wins.)
It took me a little while to get into Quo Vadis. The characters seemed a little stiff, the prose a little stilted. The appeal of a story set in ancient Rome, however, kept me going, and I’m glad I stuck with it. After the first couple of chapters, I found myself warming to the story and genuinely interested in what was going to happen. Plot-wise Quo Vadis is a lot of fun, with twists and turns suitable for any melodrama worth its salt. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the outcome of the various plot threads was not predictable: at many points in the story, I was on the edge of my seat to find out what would happen.
In the end, I found the characterizations to be sensitive and three-dimensional. Nero, monster though he is, comes across as a figure to be pitied as much as to be feared or hated. The heroine of the novel, the lovely and faithful Lydia, is rather colorless, but this is made up for by the fascinating portrayal of the Roman noble Vinicius, whose internal struggles and complicated reaction to Christianity are vividly brought to life The aesthete Petronius is one of the most interesting characters (more so than Lydia, to be honest), because he’s such a keen-eyed observer of his own (and others’) reactions, motivations, and feelings. I think Sienkiewicz gets closest to the puzzle at the heart of conversion not through the many pages that he devotes to trying to capture the experience of grace (he does throw rather a lot of words at the reader in the attempt to do so) but in the simplicity of Petronius realizing at a certain point that he no longer shares the same point of view as Vinicius, and is left with the realization that he’s seeing something he can’t conveniently label and put on a shelf.
I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical novels and has a bit of patience with a book that warms up slowly.