on January 16, 2010
No holds barred, Annabel Lyon's triumphant "The Golden Mean" is an intelligent, savvy -- yet unflinching and parsimonious -- glimpse into the life and times of Aristotle (384 BC -322 BC). This book has to be the historical fiction coup of 2009. (Please read the media and other reviews above.) As a reader of Lyon's little masterpiece, you will be, as I was, struck by the grace and humor of her prose. The dialogue is stupendous. Aristotle becomes real, flawed and brilliant - an awesome human being.
Yes, Alexander (The Great), Aristotle's stellar, somewhat fawning, somewhat arrogant pupil, plays a prominent (though secondary) role in this well-researched story, which brings Aristotle, the father of Western science and philosophy to vivid characterization. Lyon's account of Alexander comports with other fictionalized portrayals of the greatest general of all times - here as a boy and youth. The resulting view of Alexander is indeed a "golden mean" achievement by Lyon.
The prose enfolds you into the book as you read. It is not a simple matter of being unable to put the book down; you actually feel a desire for the story. The characters live in your world.
The book, as one reviewer said, is "full of intellect, profound," and, as another states, "fully convincing." Well, no novel has to be "convincingly" accurate to the facts, and this one takes literary license frequently, through its lovely dialogue.
Page 188, (Aristotle speaking to Alexander) "...You must look for the mean between extremes, the point of balance. The point will differ from man to man. There is not a universal standard of virtue to cover all situations at all times. Context must be taken into account, specificity, what is best at a particular place and time...."
Page 264, "...Go still at sundown, and you can hear the earth itself humming. The ground stays warm long into the night....."
Page 276, "...while my student (Alexander), charging off the end of every map, falls deeper and deeper into the well of himself..."
I see only one flaw. Lyon falls into the same trap that most writers of historical fiction do. The story paints a somewhat unreal picture of life in 300's BC. The characters for the most part (as they truly were) are wealthy, educated, and healthy - living a life of some ease and luxury with slaves, servants and a general absence of misery. There is little pain (except the natural and the self-inflicted), whereas ordinary life back then was pretty much awful and miserable. Of course, Aristotle, his cohorts, family and friends for the most part were privileged, often at the expense of others less fortunate. However, his (and others') arrogance and vast ignorance and prejudices (attitudes toward women, for instance) are obvious and present on many pages. His second wife, Herpyllis, has to teach him virtually everything about satisfying sex.
The cover photograph is puzzling. Why this photo? Who is it? What is it supposed to evoke? It's a strange and bad choice.
In her correct drive to the goal of brevity, at times the story line dangles unfinished or sketchy, as we jump too quickly to another scenario. The most vivid example was a lack of details about the swimming party at the beach with Alexander, Aristotle and Alexander's older brother Arrhidaeus. I usually criticize a book for its being too long. This one is too short !!
One really, really great thing in the front of the book is the Cast (in order of appearance). Thank you, Annabel Lyon and your publisher. I so wish that other novelists and publishers would follow your splendid example!!
All in all, it's a 5++ on Amazon's rating scale.