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3.1 out of 5 stars
13
3.1 out of 5 stars
Counting the Stars
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 April 2009
Catullus, a poet writing in C1st Rome bce, the Rome of Cicero and Julius Caesar, is perhaps now best known for his searing poems written to `Lesbia', possibly the aristocratic married woman Clodia Metelli. Dunmore takes this scenario very literally and spins a story that fills out the gaps in Catullus' own poems. Love, death, obsessive erotic passion, poisoning, possible incest and political corruption: this ought to be a story boiling over with emotion, but somehow it feels emotionally flat, both too sensationalist and yet too mundane at the same time.

Dunmore writes in an odd kind of half-historical style: some of it is completely contemporary so that Catullus talks about his `career options', people imagine going to heaven (in pre-Christian Rome?), people talking to and about slaves as if they are social acquaintances. Yet, on the other hand, she stresses the alieness of Roman culture, particularly around a funeral scene. Sadly, for me, neither style worked, and the book ended up being un-atmospheric to an extreme.

I also found Dunmore's extremely literal reading of Catullus' poetry very limiting, as if the only source for poetry is always and unquestionably the autobiographical, with no room for creative imagination at all. Apart from being an unsophisticated reading, it made the whole book far too predictable to anyone familiar with the poetry itself.

There have been other attempts to novelise the Catullus/Lesbia story (Clodia,The Venus Throw,The Ides of March but this is the first time it has been written by a woman. However Dunmore doesn't succeed, in my view, in making Clodia any more a `real' woman than any of her male writers.

So overall I found this a disappointingly slight book that gestures towards something deeply emotional but fails to deliver.
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on 24 August 2017
An absorbing novel which took me there while I read it.
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on 12 August 2009
I think perhaps my title says it all. One of my all time favorite novels is by Dunmore (Thie Siege), and I am very fond of at least half of the rest of her output. But this! I have a classical education myself so I can't say I am alienated by her subject, but in this novel the reader remains completely alienated by all of the characters - they are hollow and cold. Dunmore shows her usual good control of language, but it doesn't lift off the ground in this one. She doesn't succeed in creating an atmosphere - at which she normally truly excels. You don't care whether the main characters live or die, love or hate, laugh or cry. What a shame. But I'm enough of a Dunmore enthusiast to look forward to her next novel, and let this be "just one of those things". You can't win every time, apparently.
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HALL OF FAMEon 23 March 2008
Everyone who has done A-level Latin has probably been intrigued by Catullus, and his passionate affair with "Lesbia", an older married woman, immortalised in some of the best poetry ever written about love. Like Shakespeare's Sonnets they tell a story which is that of everyone who has ever felt seared by love, and loss, but which is also tantalisingly individual and modern. Dunmore imagines the progress of the affair, from the time when Catullus and the rich, spoilt Clodia (probably the real-life Lesbia) make love in the villa of his friend Manlius, through to when he returns to Rome after his brother's death in Bithynia and realises the affair is over. Interwoven with this is a kind of detective story as Catullus discovers that Clodia may have poisoned her husband. A dull upstanding Senator very different from the glamorous, witty, sophisticated circle Caullus inhabits, he is blamed for the death of Lesbia's famous sparrow.

Dunmore has always excelled at haunting, lyrical descriptions of doomed passion in which the central protagonist is doomed or deceived. There are two striking things about this new novelhowever. One is that it has a male point of view throughout. The other is that it is often very funny. As a noted poet herself, she probably puts a lot of her own frustrations at bores and philistines into C's mind; Clodia's leaden husband is allowed more dignity and sympathy in the end but makes a good foil. She also allows us to sympathise with Clodia/Lesbia, especially in her choice not to remarry. What fate could a Roman girl have but to be married off at 14? If Clodia is puzzlingly sex-mad, maybe it's the only sphere in which she can achieve some autonomy.

Ultimately, this isn't quite as good as her best novels, The Siege and Talking to the Dead in terms of narrative control and satisfaction. It's a more internalised drama, without the shocks and surprises that make her earlier work particularly satisfying. However, it's one of her best historical novels, a hugely impressive work of imagination and research. A pleasure to read, it will stay in your mind long after the end.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 11 May 2013
Catallus and Clodia have never spent the night together. They meet in the late afternoons when her husband is dealing with his stewards or attending an interesting trial. Clodia is ten years older than him, but bewitchingly beautiful and they are in love. Or at least, Catallus is in love with her. He is a poet, popular, clever, much sought after in the salons, with many friends among the young Romans of the city. But this is Rome, at the beginning of its decadence. Julius Caesar is only one of the men laying foundations for his own bid for power. The forum is dominated by Cicero and Republican politics are uncertain, with undercurrents of corruption threaded like a fever through the bowels of the city.

Clodia is a fascinating anti-heroine, mercurial, beautiful, but increasingly malign as she toys with Catallus's affections to the point where he falls ill with fever and his doctor Philoctetes has to make strenuous efforts to save him. This seems to have been a genuine illness, but was given the epithet `fever', as many illnesses of the time were similarly named.Then Clodia's husband, Metellus Celer, falls sick and dies. Rumours abound that he was poisoned - and the main suspect is Clodia.

A complex character, Clodia is utterly vicious at times, and at others loving. Catallus's feelings for her are never resolved - a mixture of hate and love builds a strong picture of the pleasures and the pain of being in love with a woman who has all the power in the relationship. The writing is sometimes much too modern, as when the steward Lucius tells Catallus: "We've had trouble with the heating today: a blockage in one of the pipes, so they've been faffing about with spare parts...", but in the main the writing does reflect the nature of Rome and Romans, especially with people such as Clodia's brother, a loathesome thug, rumoured to have slept with his sister from childhood, and the presence of characters such as Aemilia, Clodia's slave who is valuable in that she can do her mistresses hair just as she likes it.

For me, the novel is probably too long, since once the situation is established not a great deal happens, There is a visit to a holiday area near the sea, and a visit to a soothsayer which is curiously inconsequential. This isn't my favourite among Dunmore's books, but it is well put together, if only sometimes engaging.
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VINE VOICEon 3 March 2011
Like many other reviewers, I was very disappointed in this novel. I have enjoyed all Dunmore's books so far - some obviously more than others - and was looking forward to reading this one. As I struggled through it, I kept thinking it had to get better, but in the end, I gave up half-way through. The story of the Roman poet Catullus and his mistress Clodia, the nearrative was strangely detached and unemotional. The story was certainly there, but it didn't engage me on any level, and I didn't really care what happened to any of the characters. The novel (for me) was, quite simply, dull. True, the descriptions were good, as always in Dunmore's books, and the storyline moved along - just - but that was about all. If this novel had been by a lesser writer, I would have given up on it earlier. Now, I'm sorry I persevered for as long as I did.
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on 12 August 2010
I love Helen Dunmore's writing, she seems to be able to get under the skin of her characters and give them psychological depth. However I was disappointed with this book which I persuaded our book groups to chose for its book of the month. I found the characters unsympathetic and the plot unsatisfactory especially compared to books such as "The Seige". We attended a discussion with the author at a literary festival and I found her comments about the characters, her lifelong fascination with the poet more interesting than the book itself.
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on 2 December 2014
I came to this as only my second Dunmore book and following a trip to Rome and as such I had high expectations, but all I can say is that I was disappointed with this one. It is an easy read and the story holds together, but never really engages. There are some good descriptions of Rome and Roman life, but the infrequent explicit language grated with me. It was not challenging, I could not really invest in it and not being an historian, even I questioned some things.

Not a bad read, but not a good one either.
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on 26 April 2009
Helen Dunmore is one of my favourite writers, but I found Counting the Stars rather unconvincing and lacking depth and insight. Some of the language also felt clumsy and jarring.
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on 2 July 2014
This is one of my favourite books by Helen Dunmore that I have read so far. Great idea, excellent feeling of being in a different time and place and the political and social climate of ancient Rome. Interesting relationships between mistress and lover, husband, and the intimacy of slaves and masters
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