books

Theodora- Actress, Empress, whore… {A review}

The most recent title in Blogher’s book club is Theodora by Stella Duffy. This is was a paid review for Blogher Book Club, but the opinions expressed here are entirely my own. 

Literally raised to be a child prostitute, Theodora of Constantinople’s story takes her from those tragic beginnings to becoming the empress of Rome and achieving Sainthood. While it is quite the story, very little is actually known about the real life of Theodora.  The things in which author Stella Duffy’s mind imagined being Theodora’s life left me disturbed. I really struggled with whether or not to start this post on that note, but here I am. I just couldn’t paint a deceitfully pretty image of a novel that left me a little scarred.
Throughout the course of her life, the loss of Theodora’s bear trainer father leaves a predominant hole within her. At age 5 though, when she is placed in the care of eunuch Menander, along with her sisters- she begins to reconcile that aching absence with Menander’s harsh abuses and disapproval. Menander’s purpose is to train the girls in his care to be actresses. Unfortunately, actresses bore little resemblance to what we know and were actually highly sexualized acrobatic dancers- (of sorts) who were used alluringly to entertain men visually until the ripe old age of 12 {TWELVE!!!} when they were ready to entertain them privately.  You know, in their bedrooms…
And so her story goes from bad to worse. She neglects her own eventual child, experiences tragic losses, whores herself out to anyone (including minors) to further her own desires. She steals, she lies, she manipulates, she has a freakish amount of overly detailed sex and all for the glory of what- religious advancement politically? I don’t know… Every time I sat down to this book I felt ill. Maybe the incidents overly adjective consumed, are mirror images of a past culture. If they are, I don’t want to know. Call me naïve, but as the mom of a young girl- and as a woman who was sexually abused as a child- this book deeply offended me. The idea that Theodora would be connected to Menander for the whole of her life, and seeking still for his in life AND beyond the grave approval just ate at me. Although I do empathize with her upbringing and the strong will she seemed to develop as a result- I felt nothing about her character to be relatable or more than one dimension-ally corrupt.
Critically, here is where I am at with this book- in Duffy’s attempt to write a work of historical fiction, I feel she fell incredibly short. Her dialogue and descriptions are more infused with modern dialect of an American era than anything historically based. Vulgarities and profanities are offensively stuffed throughout the pages of this novel in ways far more crass and vulgar than I would expect in any historical book- even one with content such as this. Which leads me to my next criticism in regards to the writing in/of this novel- the story. Though based more out of Duffy’s imagination than anything fully concrete- as a writer I can’t help wonder why anyone would want to tell this story at all. Obviously I am not the author, or any of the people quoted with their acclaim for this work of hers. I am however a woman, in an era where I thought we were trying to become better examples for future generations of women- proving that they do not have to whore themselves out to be successful. Spottlighting successful and strong women for others, as well as the growing generations of girls would take me far from Theodora’s direction…
The fictional character of Theodora, (inspired by the real Theodora of Constantinople) is a non-redemptive and horrible person. I turned page after page, truly expecting every ugly detail to be stepping blocks for some major moment and some incredible redemption. One never came- and as for the big, life changing moment Theodora experiences- it somehow only served to offend me more.
I am not a prude in life, in film or in the books I read. That being said though, this book was too much and I could never recommend another soul sit through it. 
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1 thought on “Theodora- Actress, Empress, whore… {A review}”

  1. when the film "there will be blood" came out a few years ago, i was the only one of my friends who loathed it. seething hatred. it was a despicable film. why? because the number one rule of storytelling is that your main character cannot be a sociopath. with a writer creating a character that is 1) abused and 2) does not seek some sort of solace or redemption? how could that be a good read? the best definition of a denouement is "one force overcoming another force." it sounds as though there was never any good to overcome the evil at any point in this novel.

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