The Uncertain Hour
By Jesse Browner
(Bloomsbury USA, Hardcover, 9781596913394, 224pp.)
Publication Date: May 29, 2007
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a.d. 66: Having been falsely implicated in a plot to assassinate the emperor Nero, Titus Petronius has a choice: await the executioner at dawn, or die a noble Roman death by his own hand. Deciding that his will be a suicide like no other the world has ever seen, he summons a small circle of intimate friends to his magnificent villa on the enchanting Tyrrhenian coast of southern Italy. There, over the course of a balmy autumn's night, Petronius throws the party of a lifetime. As they feast on course after course of the most sumptuous and exotic fare the empire has to offer, his guests are expressly forbidden to dwell on the imminent tragedy; instead, they are enjoined to sing, eat, drink, and celebrate. But as his life dwindles to a few precious hours, Petronius himself cannot shake off the ghosts of his past or his regret over mistakes that can no longer be set right. With the fateful dawn approaching, he recalls the great love affair of his life, and his years as Nero's "Arbiter of Elegance." Not until the very end will he bequeath his magnum opus, The Satyricon, to posterity.
Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, The Uncertain Hour is a vivid portrait of life in ancient Rome and a gripping entrée into the mind of a great man during his final hours.
Jesse Browner is a writer and translator who lives in New York. He is the author of the novels Conglomeros (1992) and Turnaway (1996), and of The Duchess Who Wouldn't Sit Down, a widely praised history of hospitality in Western civilization. He has been a contributor to the New York Times Book Review, Food and Wine magazine, Nest magazine, New York magazine, and others.
"Lush and sorrowful…splendid…lusciously described… gorgeous."--The New York Observer
"The Uncertain Hour is that very rare thing -- a historical novel of love and ideas not only free of pedantry, but also serious and entertaining. Browner has done a fine and meticulous job borrowing from the actual "Satyricon" dishes for Petronius' lovingly described last supper…a rewarding new novel."--Los Angeles Times
"A long night's meditation on love, life and death amid the decadence of the Roman empire, for those who like their historical fiction steeped in philosophy. The ultimate message that the way one dies is as important as the way one has lived, that death defines a life, is both timeless and modern. A reflective evening in the face of death."--Kirkus Reviews
"[An] engaging historical novel. Browner 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."--Publishers Weekly
"Browner deftly captures, with minute detail, patrician life circa CE 66, filling his narrative with beautiful descriptions of Petronius' villa, his slaves, the Aegean, and the abundant delicacies of the final feast"--Booklist (starred)
"If I say that Jesse Browner's The Uncertain Hour is a truly original work of art, I hope I won't scare anyone off. It's also the most engrossing page-turner I've picked up in a long while."--Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours
"The Uncertain Hour is imbued with the sweetness and sadness of life. Jesse Browner transports us to another world full of hauntingly universal truths."--Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt and Cod
"The Uncertain Hour is as sumptuous a feast as the fabulous banquet it describes. It is also an elegant meditation on the nature of love, what makes a good life, and whether there can be such a thing as a perfect death. I don't know which to praise more: the author's feat of historical reconstruction, or his boundless powers of invention."--Sigrid Nunez, author of The Last of Her Kind "I greatly enjoyed and admired Jesse Browner's enthralling The Uncertain Hour, which recounts the final hours of excess and bleakness leading to the certain suicide of Petronius, a Roman nobleman. Its mixture of love, regret and death-fuelled defiance is heartbreaking, but also oddly uplifting, largely because Browner is such a convincing, calm and gracious narrator."--Jim Crace, author of Being Dead and The Pesthouse "In prose that is passionate, deeply meditative, and as richly detailed as the marbles and mosaics that Nero's Arbiter of Elegance knew so well, Browner's The Uncertain Hour transports the reader to an ancient Roman world vividly alive, even as it moves step by step toward the death awaiting Petronius at the end of his last banquet. A sensual and moving feast."--Jane Alison, author of The Love-Artist, The Marriage of the Sea, and Natives and Exotics