A large-animal veterinarian, the first female Major League pitcher, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Like many kids, I had a lot of far-flung ideas about what I wanted to be when I grew up. But what I really wanted to be was my older sister.
Three years my senior, Julia was by definition better at everything than I was. She was taller, skinnier and prettier. She had longer hair and neater handwriting. She came up with better stories, funnier Mad Libs. As we passed into our teenage years, I grew jealous of her boyfriends, the effect she had on men. There was nothing worth doing that Julia hadn’t done better—and first.
And so, when I stumbled upon the name Arsinoe sometime in late 2010, it should come as no surprise that I was immediately drawn to the story of Cleopatra’s forgotten younger sister. An avatar of my childhood and adolescent self, fawning and yearning and aching over her sibling’s successes, she felt deeply familiar. What little can be gleaned about Arsinoe’s life: She metamorphosed from Cleopatra’s close ally (the two fled Alexandria to raise an army against their brother) to the queen’s bitter enemy (two years later, Arsinoe rebelled against her sister). Before I knew it, I was hooked. I wanted to rewrite the famous ruler’s saga, tracing not Cleopatra’s rise and fall but Arsinoe’s: the sisterly bonds fraying and snapping beneath history’s unyielding heft. I envisioned the first scraping of that fray: the moment of their half-sister Berenice’s coup, when their father, King Ptolemy, fled to Rome with Cleopatra, leaving Arsinoe to her fate.
When I first imagined the book that became Cleopatra’s Shadows, it was as a vehicle for Arsinoe’s story, the younger sister’s story. Though the gaps in our experience were vast and obvious—my family, to my great chagrin, has never ruled a dynasty—we shared that acute feeling of abandonment, betrayal. Julia had never left me in a physical or dramatic sense, but by the time I was 8 or 9—Arsinoe’s age when the novel begins—my sister had hit the throes of preteen angst, as keen to shirk familial ties as I was to cling to them. For middle school, for college, for adulthood, younger siblings are by definition always left behind. And so those sentiments came easily, paired with a reimagining of a Hellenistic childhood interrupted, the idyllic days of a princess torn asunder by revolt.
Only later, after the idea for the novel had percolated for some time, did I decide to include a second perspective, that of the eldest sister, the rebel Berenice who seized on local hatred of her father and plotted her way onto the throne. At first, this alternate narrator emerged as a foil: Every protagonist needs an antagonist. And yet, the more I wrote, the more I researched—the body of history devoted to Berenice’s rule is slim, but that concerning Arsinoe’s girlhood slimmer still—the more I became fascinated by the elder sister. A decade before Cleopatra had shunted aside her brothers to rule Egypt on her own, another woman of her family had done the same, sending her own father squalling off to Rome, begging for an army to retake his seat. What brilliant and defiant sort of woman managed that?
I was also intrigued by how family and birth order shaped Berenice’s predicament. Her point of view yielded—for me—a far more alien perspective: the one where life and stability were fragmented by the arrival of babe after squealing babe. As the youngest of four, I was born to my place. No world had ever existed in which I was an only child, no memory where I hadn’t always had a brother and two sisters. Berenice’s identity was rooted in the opposite experience: that of watching her family grow, develop and ultimately collapse. She looked on as her mother’s role was taken by a concubine, as her own was taken by Cleopatra. By the age of 19, Berenice had been dismissed by everyone who mattered at the Alexandrian court—but she refused to accept obscurity. She flailed and fought against it, seizing power at once owed to and stolen from her. Rather than a mirror for Arsinoe, a shadow to the younger sister’s sun, she emerged as a hero unto herself.
The early drafts of Cleopatra’s Shadows were fueled by my urge to explore a likeness, the pathos that I felt for poor, abandoned Arsinoe. And yet the more time I spent in Berenice’s head, the more obsessed I became with her, the other sister, that eldest child I’d never been. I began this novel because I wanted to tell Arsinoe’s story, not Berenice’s. But by the time I’d written the final words, I had come to love both sisters with equal ferocity.
Emily Holleman launches a gripping historical saga with Cleopatra’s Shadows, her debut novel. The Tudor court has nothing on the ruthlessness of the Ptolemaic dynasty, built on alliances as shifting as the Egyptian sands. Holleman, a former editor for Salon.com, lives and writes in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a sequel to Cleopatra’s Shadows.