May 12, 2010

Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore

Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore

The Roman poet Catullus remains the main reason why I’m grateful that I took Latin in school: reading his poetry in the original was an absolute delight. Catullus is mostly famous for the passionate love poems he dedicated to Lesbia, a woman who has been identified as Clodia Metelli Celeris. Clodia was a married woman and the sister of an important Roman politician, which is why it was necessary to disguise her identity. But apparently her affair with Catullus was somewhat of an open secret. In Counting the Stars, Helen Dunmore retells the story of Catullus and Clodia’s affair from their first passionate encounter to its disillusioned ending – all against the backdrop of political intrigue in the late Roman republic.

I’d been dying to read Counting the Stars ever since I first heard of it – not only because I love Catullus’ poetry, but also because reading his poems to Lesbia left me with several questions, all of which I thought were avenues a retelling of their story could explore with very interesting results. This is what I always hope a retelling of a well-known story will do: tackle some of these lingering questions and attempt to fill some of the gaps. In this case, my questions were mostly about Lesbia herself: who was she? How did she experience this love affair? What was her side of the story? In Catullus’ poetry she has no voice, and she isn’t really portrayed as an actual person: she’s the receptacle of one man’s intense feelings. However, this isn’t something that bothers me, mostly because more than about Lesbia herself, the poems are about the feeling of being in love – about the longing, the passion, the anguish, the excruciating doubts and insecurities, and so on.

I had assumed that Counting the Stars would fill this particular gap and portray Lesbia/Clodia as a fully-developed human being, simply because that’s the kind of retelling I wanted to read. I suppose it’s not really fair to resent a book for not doing what I wanted it to do, but to me this novel was a complete and utter disappointment. The Clodia we see her is still not a real person: she’s an object of desire and occasionally a target of anger. She remains a cipher, just as voiceless and inscrutable as in the original poems, and just as seemingly moody, cruel, and even manipulative. What can be explained in Catullus’ poetry as the resentment of a lover who feels rejected is more difficult to make sense of in a full-length novel, where the characters are expected to be more fleshed out, and their motivations are supposed to be given fuller explanations. I couldn’t make sense of Clodia at all. I was left every bit as clueless about her feelings and motivations as I was after reading the poems.

To be fair, Catullus himself is quite fleshed out, and the novel moves beyond his love affair with Clodia to dwell on his past, his family life, and his relationship with the city of Rome and with the countryside where he grew up. There’s also quite a bit about life in ancient Rome, about the republic’s politics, and about power games and conspiracies. But I feel that I wasn’t able to appreciate this aspect of the novel properly because I was too busy being disappointed that Clodia herself hadn’t been given a past or a background.

Many of the episodes recounted in Counting the Stars are recognisable from Catullus’ poems – there’s the famous death of his mistress’ sparrow, for example – but sadly, for me this was another drawback. I felt that Helen Dunmore didn’t want to venture too far from what the poems tells us, but I think this defeats the purpose of retelling Catullus and Clodia’s story at all. Counting the Stars was a little too faithful to what the poems show us, especially when it comes to the time Catullus and Clodia spend together. There wasn’t much here beyond physical passion and longing, and jealousy and resentment. But surely a love affair is never quite as simple as that? Surely the poems only show us one of its angles? I wanted more – I wanted exactly what the poems don’t show us.

It’s not that Counting the Stars is a bad novel; it’s just that it absolutely failed to be the novel I wanted it to be. Ah well – onwards and forward to the next book. I’ll leave you with one of my favourites of Catullus’ poems:
Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and let us judge all the rumours of the old men
to be worth just one penny!
The suns are able to fall and rise:
When that brief light has fallen for us,
we must sleep a never ending night.
Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.
Then, when we have made many thousands,
we will mix them all up so that we don't know,
and so that no one can be jealous of us when he finds out
how many kisses we have shared.
Has a book ever disappointed you simply by being completely different than you had imagined it would be?

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll add your link here.)


  1. I am sorry this one didn't work for you. Perhaps you are right and Dunmore didn't want to venture too far from what was written in the poems in order to give the book authenticity. She knew if she fleshed the character of Clodia out, it would be just her interpretation rather than the truth.

  2. I haven't read it but I'd probably be as disappointed as you for the same reasons. I loved reading Catullus poems in school, but the point of a retelling is making you see what lies beneath the surface of historical facts, and weave in some imagination to make the story alive.
    Probably the author never intended to write from Claudia's perspective, but even then, not fleshing out a character properly can never be excused (especially when we know so little of said character in real life!).

  3. How disappointing! It seems that Dutton passed up a great opportunity here to explore Clodia as a character and to flesh her out in a way that the poems did not. Even if the focus was on Catullus, you think you'd want to add some depth to his love interest.

  4. I feel that when you're retelling a romance, especially a historical one where the woman may have had little to no voice, you're almost obligated to flesh her out. Romance is something between two people; certainly she must have loved him too, right? You're totally justified in being disappointed here.

  5. Absolutely I've been disappointed by a book being different from what I imagined. Every re-telling of the tale of the life of Eleanor of Acquitaine is that way for me, although some of them do have their pleasures.

  6. I've never heard of this poet, but I'm sorry you were disappointed. You ask - have we experienced that? Yes! Last year when I read Reincarnation, I expected something so much more than what it ended up. I felt like I should have known better, but I had really hoped so much. :/

  7. That poem is really great. I hadn't heard of the poet or the book, but I completely agree with the disappointment. I hate being disappointed in a book, and this sounds like a prime example. I agree that from the sounds of it the book would have been so much better if she was a real, fleshed out character!

  8. What a shame. I really like Helen Dunmore, too. She has really been whipping out the books lately; maybe she's not taking enough time for each!

  9. Oh, I am truly sorry that you were disappointed by it, Nymeth! I hope your next pick will be better:)

  10. Sorry to hear that this book was somewhat of a disappointment to you. It sounds like you didn't learn as much about Lesbia as you wanted to know and that she remained flat during the whole tale. I can imagine that has got to be very frustrating for you. I hope that your next read is more satisfying.

    On another note, I came across a book I think you would really love. It is called Forest Gate, written by Peter Akinti. It is really a very moving and haunting tale about two Somalian sibilings living in a tenement in London. It has all the hallmarks of a book I think you would love, and I am in the middle of it right now. If you do look it up and are interested in it, I could definitely send it your way.

  11. Great review. I'm in the midst of a book right now - Reading Lolita in Terran - that is having a similar experience for me. I haven't been enjoying it at all, but this morning I realized that it is because it isn't what I was expecting. So, maybe if I change my expectations, I'll enjoy it better!

  12. You don't even know how excited I got when I read the beginning of this post, and how sad I was when I got to the third paragraph where you said the book was disappointing. I am MADE OUT OF SADNESS right now. We did a lot of Catullus in high school, and I loved him. I still remember most of the poem of his that I memorized in Latin (it's the "ave atque vale" one, where he goes to his brother's tomb). I wanted to take more Catullus in college, but the classes always paired him with Horace and I passionately hate Horace, so I never took the classes.

    Also, I am constantly being disappointed by books that are different to what I imagined. I haven't figured out the trick to not having any expectations going in, though! I form them without even noticing!

  13. I have a feeling this would be way over my head. Sorry it wasn't what you expected.

  14. Oh, how unfortunate! I think this often happens with historical fiction about real people, particularly in the romance department. I know I tried to read Diane Haeger's The Secret Wife of George IV (I think that is the title), but was so disappointed by the first several pages that I couldn't continue. Same for another book by her. I guess it must be very difficult to flesh characters out well! But then... it's sad when a book falls so flat.

  15. That really is a shame. What's the point of reading a retelling if all it does is literally retell the story?

  16. Sometimes that happens and it is sad...but I love how optimistic you are for the next book!!!

  17. You really read some amazing sounding literature. I so look forward to your post. I just wish I could stop by everyday :(

  18. Aw, too bad the book wasn't what you were expecting! I can totally understand, though. I haven't read any of the poems, but even I would assume that the characters in the book would be more substantial.

  19. Vivienne: I see your point, but for me the thought doesn't quite hold up because I don't see the original poems as "the truth" either - more like a subjective interpretation of a love affair by one of the partners.

    Valentina: Yeah, even if she didn't give her a voice a little more depth to her character could only have improved the book. I was so let down :(

    Claire: Yes, exactly!

    Clare: The book seems to suggest that she was whimsy and more interested in taking advantage of people than in love, but even that is not fully explored. I think that maybe she wanted to leave readers wondering about Clodia because Catullus never figured her out too, but in a novel that just doesn't work.

    Jeanne: Almost makes you want to write the kind of retelling you want to read yourself :P

    Amanda: I remember your review of that - such a pity it was such a let-down :\

    Amy: It really would. It has so much potential too!

    Jill: I'd never read her before, and despite my feelings on this one I'd like to try her again.

    Andreea, thank you! :)

    Zibilee: That's SO nice of you to offer! But I'm really trying to curb my tbr pile before I have to move and leave it behind in September, so my conscience is forcing me not to accept :P I can't tell you how much I appreciate it, though, and I'll keep the title in mind.

  20. Elisabeth: I'm sorry to hear Lolita in Tehran isn't quite working for you! I enjoyed it a lot, but I also had to readjust my expectations at first. I thought it was going to be much more book group-ish than it actually was.

    Jenny: Aw, poor Horace :P And trying to trick our expectations just doesn't work, does it? They always trick *us* in the end.

    Kathy: I don't see why it would be - it's incredibly straightforward and accessible. Not that it would go over your head even if it wasn't, of course!

    Aarti: I think this happens if the writer decides to be *too* respectful of the fact that these are real people, you know? One thing is being respectful in the sense of sticking to the known facts - but refusing to make the characters their own is quite another matter. I don't see how a novel written with that sort of reluctance could ever work.

    Emily: My thoughts exactly!

    Staci: The one I finished today was lovely, so hooray :D

    Diane: I understand - we all get busy.

    Naida: Isn't it lovely?

    Emidy: Yeah, exactly - that's what I always expect of novels.

  21. I too love Catullus' poems and this book is high in my TBR piles too. It is a shame that it has not lived up to expectations, and you're not the first to say so, but I am still v.interested to read it.

  22. Annabel, fingers crossed that you have more luck with it than I did!


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