The Dream of Scipio, Iain Pears, Riverhead Books, 2002, 396 pp
I had heard good things about Iain Pears and read rave reviews of this book when it first appeared. It is one of those books that has been on my list of books to read for several years. Browsing through the library one day, I spotted it and checked it out. Then I recommended it for one of my reading groups, they agreed and I had a good reason to spend a weekend reading it.
The Dream of Scipio is historical fiction with the twist of running three different historical periods along together, tied by location, philosophical ideas and a manuscript called "The Dream of Scipio." It was a hard book to get into at first, but once I learned who everyone was and did some map study to get oriented, I got hooked by the philosophical idea: how do you save civilization when the barbarians are invading and destroying it?
The location is Avignon, France. The three periods are the final days of the Roman Empire; the years of the Black Death; and World War II. Each period follows the story of a man who has some kind of philosophical bent and a woman who is loved by the man and complements his life in some way. There is lots of historical intrigue in each period to keep the stories exciting and the "Dream of Scipio" is the thread that keeps turning up to show that civilization did in fact survive and re-surface. Each character feels that he or she has failed in the quest and Pears seems to be saying that they did not.
In the end, I almost loved the book. I don't know of many novelists who are writing these days about such large and deep ideas. I even wrote a letter to the author.