cover image Cleopatra's Sister

Cleopatra's Sister

Penelope Lively. HarperCollins Publishers, $20 (281pp) ISBN 978-0-06-016667-0

Surely this authoritatively controlled, highly accomplished novel, British author Lively's 10th (her Moon Tiger won the Booker), will increase her audience of discriminating readers here. Written with grace and clarity, and luminous with insights about the human condition, it is as timely as the evening news and as eternal as the most classic love story. Lively's subtext, the ``strange conjunction of likelihood and contingency'' that determines one's life, is convincing; she orchestrates a fateful mix of chance encounters, determined by character as well as coincidence. In alternating chapters, she depicts the lives of paleontologist Howard Beamish and crusading journalist Lucy Faulkner, both successful in their careers but unfulfilled because they have not established enduring relationships. They meet when the plane they are taking to Cairo makes a forced landing in Callimbia, a fictional country in the throes of a bloody revolution led by a lunatic dictator. Lively's witty, ironic construction of Callimbia's history ranges from its establishment by Cleopatra's sister Berenice through the rise of the ``moral renegade'' who orders the plane's British passengers taken hostage. Through the eyes of Howard and Lucy, and in counterpoint to their growing love for each other, Lively depicts the passengers' responses to their plight: from annoyance to growing unease and to terror, as their captors grow more hostile and threatening and the situation turns more bizarre. Lively keeps the narrative deliberately low key while escalating the tension, which culminates when one of the group is singled out to be executed. Against all the conventions of contemporary fiction, Lucy and Howard's mature romance is fresh and convincing--though entirely without scenes of sexual union--and the wonder of love is made all the more clear in contrast to the precarious nature of human existence. (Apr.)