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The Uncertain Hour: A Novel Hardcover – May 29, 2007

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; First Edition edition (May 29, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596913398
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596913394
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,737,736 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This engaging historical novel opens in A.D. 66, with Roman aristocrat Titus Petronius planning his suicide. Emperor Nero has falsely implicated him in an assassination plot, and the high-born Petronius prefers suicide to dishonor. Setting his affairs in order, he organizes an elaborate banquet for his close friends before he retires to his quarters to open his veins. Between sumptuous courses, elevated conversation and bawdy verse, Petronius muses on his past, and philosophical reflections on the meaning of life accompany a string of flashbacks, many of which detail the former governor's romance with a centurion's wife, Melissa Silia. Reviewing his career, Petronius realizes more attention to his mistress and less to the temptations of ambition would have avoided this disaster. Meanwhile, at the banquet, the grief of a young friend who cannot accept Petronius's refusal to flee to safety threatens to spoil the mood. Browner (Turn Away) has done his homework, and his meticulous description of a Roman banquet and its attendant rituals, as well as his account of first-century Roman politics, letters and even clothing styles, is immediately immersive. Browner creates with considerable skill a snapshot of Roman life—and death. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Having been implicated in a plot against Emperor Nero, Titus Petronius Niger, a soldier, senator, and courtier known as Nero's "Arbiter of Elegance," must perform his duty and fall on his sword. On the eve of the Saturnalia Festival, Petronius plays host to a gathering of his closest friends for a farewell banquet and to honor the sacred obligations of hospitality. A sumptuous meal is prepared, served, and consumed as Petronius, at intervals, removes himself from the festivities to open a vein and begin the process of ending his life, a feat that he hopes to accomplish by dawn. Browner (author of the novelsConglomeros, 1992, and Turnaway,1996, as well as a history of hospitality, The Duchess Who Wouldn't Sit Down,2003) deftly captures, with minute detail, patrician life circa 66 C.E., filling his narrative with beautiful descriptions of Petronius' villa, his slaves, the Aegean, and the abundant delicacies of the final feast (sweetbreads, black pudding, sea urchins, dormice, and sow's vulva). Petronius endeavors to find meaning in his life and control his legacy during his last hours. The novel is enhanced by Petronius' conversations with Martialis, a Spanish-born poet who enjoys his patronage, provocatively addressing issues of loyalty and integrity. The real-life Petronius is said to have been the author of Satyrican. Benjamin Segedin
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By James Gifford on June 28, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I found myself very caught up in this book, a depiction of Petronius's last day. Determined to die as he has lived, and condemned to death by Nero, he throws a final dinner party for his friends. Petronius's reflections on his life and what people and events have meant to him become absorbing and worthwhile fiction. How an author so young could fantasize what would go through a man's mind during his final hours is the true amazement here. I was reminded what Dracula said to Van Helsing, "For one so young you are very wise." A moving and lovely book.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Stanley H. Nemeth on July 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is a simply wonderful novel, allowing any reader with a historical interest the pleasure first of all of seeing ancient Roman life in startling concrete detail through the eyes of a remarkably sophisticated, witty person, Petronius, the Emperor Nero's Stoic/Epicurean ruler in matters of taste.

As others have mentioned, the novel is principally set on the last day of Petronius' life at the special farewell banquet - honeyed dormice are among its delicacies - which he's arranged before his own suicide, himself having fallen out of Nero's favor owing to court intrigue. Interspersed are flashbacks which give the background of Petronius' chief relationships in life, those with his cryptic mistress Melissa and his hotheaded, emotionally free Spanish protege, the poet Martial.

Even more pleasurable than the historical dimension is the human dimension of Petronius' life, his strengths and limitations, which Browner as philosophical novelist richly sets forth. As an emotionally reserved general who's spent much time in the provinces, Petronius is of the opinion that, though life should be lived well and nobly, public life at the courts of emperors offers much to endure and little to enjoy, and that a guardedness in such is, consequently, the path best followed. His private attachment to his mistress, though, for this very reason of his habitual tempermental reserve becomes one which, unfortunately, leaves too much unsaid. Their rapprochement towards the novel's end, after so much indirection, is credibly rendered and astonishingly moving.

Set against Petronius' reserve, which we've seen colors even his private life, is the emotional openness, anger, and general imprudence of his adopted son of sorts, Martial.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Yalensian VINE VOICE on September 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Jesse Browner imagines the final hours of Titus Petronius Niger, the emperor Nero's "arbiter of elegance," in this convincing novel of ancient Rome. Knowing he has fallen out of the emperor's graces and will be tried and sentenced to death on the first day of the Saturnalia festival, Petronius holds a banquet for his closest friends and, true to Roman honor, plans to kill himself at the dinner's conclusion at dawn. Browner tells the tale from Petronius's perspective, focusing on his memories, regrets, concerns about his legacy, and meditations on his life: What is the good life? Is there meaning to life? To death?

Browner can be lyrical, as when describing the sea or the sky, but he is occasionally ham-fisted; for instance, when Petronius asks his slave girl what she would do if she were free, Browner writes that a bird flew into the villa and "would surely break its neck trying to get out again." Surely there's a less banal way to describe the perils of freedom? Yet he also produces unexpected descriptions that linger with the reader: the value of a certain ladle is "worth enough to change her life forever."

Browner also succeeds in building tension as Petronius's suicide approaches. Petronius is no Hamlet and has no fears about what dreams may come. He resolves himself to his death, and in the end, so do we -- though, contra history, we might wish he could have lived on.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Margaret Maloney on July 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The Uncertain Hour transported me into the Roman Empire: its food, its art, its poetry, its values. What better person to display the cultural bounty of Ancient Rome than Nero's "Arbiter of Taste"? Petronius's moral dilemmas and deathbed reminiscences are woven through a jewel box of Roman culture. I particularly enjoyed the Roman poetry--Browner chose translations that are beautiful in and of themselves.

The book is particularly resonant at the moment, as America faces comparisons to the Roman Empire at the height of its power and arrogance. Petronius's fate at the hand of Nero, a truly "unitary executive," is food for thought.
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