Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii by Vicky Alvear Shecter
Published: May 27, 2014, Arthur A. Levine Books
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
Source: From publisher via NetgalleyGoodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble
In the Roman city of Pompeii during the late summer/early fall of 79 CE, both Lucia and Tages feel stifled by the lack of opportunities in their lives. The daughter of the owner of a minor gladiator school, Lucia has grown up with a few privileges. But she is weeks away from being married to a man decades older, one who isn’t likely to respect her love of learning or allow her to retain any autonomy back in Rome. Tages is the son of the medic at the gladiator school run by Lucia’s father. He spent many years away in Rome, only to return to live once more under an abusive master and witness his father’s troubling mental deterioration firsthand.
Lucia and Tag become reacquainted with one another, gradually sharing their fears, hopes, and dreams. But in addition to all the social and economic factors preventing them from openly declaring their love, they also must deal with the ominous tremors and changes in nature that herald the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
How can a story about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and star-crossed young lovers present anything other than a page-turning plot? It’s a question I’m still pondering, after having finished Vicky Alvear Shecter’s latest work, Curses and Smoke. Perhaps the best way to put it is that this is a book that doesn’t quite reach its full potential, unfortunately.
Lucia and Tag are likable, sympathetic characters. I fully empathized with both their situations. But they never felt fully real to me, perhaps in part because they both seemed created to push certain agendas/messages. Through Lucia, it felt as though readers were supposed to sympathize with a girl ahead of her time, interested in science and logic and learning, not wanting to be tied down through marriage. While I will admire any character with a strong passion who is willing to fight for her equality, much of Lucia’s characterization felt overly convenient. Lucia’s interest in science doubles as a way for Shecter to display her (rather impressive) research into all the natural signs that forewarned the eruption. Lucia’s abhorrence towards arranged marriage is conveniently justified through her arranged marriage to a much older man, and by knowledge she comes to learn about her father and her best friend’s husband.
But Lucia isn’t completely opposed to marriage or romance; after all, half of the story is about her love interest, Tag. Like Lucia, much of Tag’s characterization seems to have been created to serve a double purpose within the novel. He’s a slave, and so his primary preoccupation (when not thinking about Lucia, that is) is about how to gain his freedom. As a healer for a gladiator school and an aspiring gladiator himself (like I said, Tag really wants his freedom), much of his life is devoted to helping and harming others. With all of his talk of freedom, however, I couldn’t get much of a bearing on his aspirations once he’s freed (other than being with Lucia). His goals never felt fully fleshed-out to me.
The characterizations and themes that Shecter promotes within the story aren’t bad ones, but they never truly felt organic to the plot, either. Many aspects of the story felt rather forced and lacked subtlety, serving only to further elaborate on certain conflicts; the main conflict seeming to be that Lucia and Tag encounter obstacle after obstacle in the way of being with one another.
It saddened me that I couldn’t love this book more, because Shecter’s research is nothing short of impressive. Along with Lucia, readers discover the Earth’s many warning signals in the month leading up to Vesuvius’ eruption. Lucia’s love of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History also gives readers insight into the natural scientific beliefs and practices of the time. From Lucia’s father’s business, readers learn about gladiator schools and the roles that gladiators occupied within the society, while Tag’s situation as both a medic and as a slave of a conquered peoples add even more vibrancy to this story. The research is there. It’s the execution that’s not quite as strong as I’d hoped it would be.
Curses and Smoke will be best enjoyed by those who are looking to gain knowledge about the eruption of Vesuvius, the dynamics of the city of Pompeii, and a portrait of life in general for those who lived during the first century CE. Shecter also includes some fascinating notes on the research and history at the end of the novel that are worth reading. Those more concerned about the story and all the aspects that go into the creation of a story, however, may find themselves somewhat dissatisfied.
Rating: 2.5 stars
Disclaimer: I received this review copy from the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion.