I consider myself an aficionado of Cleopatra and I devour all things regarding her and her life. I did not think it was possible to take the incredible story that is Cleopatra's life and make it dull. I was wrong. Schiff seemed to make it a point to make the story as boring and unemotional as possible.
I think the greatest problem with this book is the author's style of writing. The most glaring of issues is Schiff's overly complicated language choices. Schiff either absolutely adores using the last option on a thesaurus list or feels it necessary to include archaic words which would be easily replaced by a simpler, yet not layman, word. I could not shake the feeling that Schiff was compensating for inadequacies with her choices. Schiff also seemed to enjoy wording phrases in what I would consider an unconventional, if not simply awkward, manner which fell into the same category as her choice of words. In addition, there are the more nitpicky of complaints, such as Schiff's use of pronouns--she would mention two different men and then say "he" and leave us having to re-read to determine which "he" to which she was referring. Also, at times she loved commas....other times not as much. I think Schiff was in desperate need of a better editor.
In addition to these problems, there was also the incredibly distracting love for tangents. I understand a topic can lead to another, often in tangent form, however Schiff did this far too often and for too great a length each time. These tangents overall made the book feel like it was lacking a decisive timeline. Yes, there was a beginning (Caesar), middle (Caesar) and end (Antony) pattern to it, but that was about it.
Schiff rather enjoyed making vague allusions to other people/events/times without elucidating further. She even accomplished this feat with Cleopatra's life without explaining further in later parts of the book (what felt like foreshadowing turned out not to be). As I have read much about Egypt and Cleopatra, there were also some known facts about Cleopatra's life left out of the book--or perhaps they were just lost in Schiff's "it may have been/you cannot be sure/I know so little on my topic because I've been distracted by Rome" writing. Although even with the included information on Cleopatra there are some inaccuracies. Without Schiff's tangents and her inclusion on non-Cleopatra related information, this book probably would have been 50 pages.
This book felt like much more of a historical exploration of Julius Caesar and Octavian, with some Mark Antony, rather than Cleopatra's life. The title is misleading, as every opportunity Schiff has to speak of Egypt rather than Rome she takes very little advantage of. Schiff seemed to prefer the topic of Roman politics and society to Cleopatra's life. I do not think it is much of an excuse that her sources were Roman considering Egypt/Alexandria itself is still known at the time of Cleopatra, even if specifics about Cleopatra herself are not. The parts involving Julius Caesar included the most tangents and were the slowest. Once Mark Antony entered into the picture the book picked up, but not considerably.
Also, I appreciated Schiff considering the view society had regarding women (especially depending upon where one lived) into consideration and looking at Cleopatra in more of a modern-day feminist fashion. However, this became tiresome especially considering Schiff's tendency to state "Cleopatra must have (insert appropriate dignified female response here)" so often. In addition, while there was a feminist undertone to the book in parts, the end felt like a complete reversal. Schiff suddenly has Cleopatra breaking down into tears regarding Antony, as a way to get her way. Really?
Considering the rest of the book, I should not have been surprised that the ending disappointed as well. However, I do expect a parting sentence to be meaningful, if not memorable. Schiff disappointed again. Her last sentence is: "For her monumental loss there were no consolations, including--assuming she believed in one--a brilliant afterlife." Why exactly would Cleopatra not have the consolation of an afterlife? (If this is in fact the way in which Schiff wants us to read this, as with her style one never knows.) Cleopatra was an avid follower of Isis. As far as I know, in both Ancient Egyptian culture and Isis, there was no problem with committing suicide--which is the only reason I can think Schiff would make such a comment. Schiff, considering her random comments through the book, seems to be unable to put aside Christianity. Of course you could consider Schiff is making a comment regarding whether there is an afterlife, but as I said--her comments about Christianity left me with other assumptions.
Overall, Cleopatra: A Life was a dull account of some
things Cleopatra. I do not recommend it for someone not already well-versed in Cleopatra's life, because without knowledge already you may be utterly lost with Schiff's writing style. For anyone interest in Cleopatra's life, without the dullness of non-fiction Schiff-style and with vibrant writing, read the historical-fiction account by Margaret George The Memoirs of Cleopatra, which is significantly historically accurate while being entertaining.