This bit of commentary has been a long time coming. The wait is primarily due to the fact that it took me forever and a day to get through the book. While reading, I was engrossed and truly enjoying every word that went by and whatever story was being told, but when I was finished reading, there was absolutely nothing that compelled me to come back and read more. In this regard, The Last of the Wine reminded me a lot of the book that led me to it: Among Others.
The setting is Ancient Greece near the close of the Peloponnesian War and the story follows Alexias from his birth until he achieves the vague outlines that define 'manhood.' There's eternal fighting, and lots of relationships developed. Reading The Last of the Wine it's easy to see that the author loved the time period and certainly did her homework in conveying Greece to the reader.
As this is the first book by Renault I've read, I can't say whether or not her writing style was a bit stiff or if it merely felt dated or both. (The book is 57 years old.) It's emotionally sterile and more of historical presentation of fact--which certainly isn't bad--but does make for some very dense reading at more than four-hundred pages.
Renault picked a rich time frame to set her story and as such there are a wealth of names the reader is likely to have some level of familiarity with: Xenophon, Sokcrates, Plato, Phaedo, and Lysander to name a few. However, for me, there was no greater relationship than Alexias' interaction with his unyieldingly badass, hard-as-nails father. Second in effect to the father son relationship was Alexias' relationship with Lysis, a slightly older Athenian of an outstanding family who has taken a serious liking to the former.
Which brings me to the most alluring aspect of the book: Renault researched and wrote a story, she finished and decided her efforts were good, she then dunked it in, if not outright homoeroticism, then certainly a heavy coat sensual sauce.
Alexias himself encompasses all ambiguity of this issue. He's a somewhat ugly child who grows into being what can only be considered the hottest thing under the sun: it become clear early on that everyone who isn't family wants a piece of him. Perhaps it's only my curiosity (but more likely the fact that Alexias' relationships were the only point offered for a reader to make an emotional connection) but I really wanted to know, 'Why does everyone want a piece of Alexias?' What are they going to do with him? Are they only interested in dating and holding hands in the park (which essentially happened)? Are they trying to score a one-nighter or a long term marriage kind of thing? None of my curiosity was satisfied and rightfully so: we don't know the specifics of pederastic relationships at that time and I thought it in the story's best interest to not make up 'supposed history.'
My only problem with the book was a lack of overall, unifying plot. While the story didn't feel like anecdotes it also never felt like it was building to a specific ending. Thus my previous comment about enjoying it while I was reading but finding it hard to come back to.
For me The Last of the Wine is a book I read and felt had no great faults: it takes you away and firmly establishes you in a different far off world, and touches on just about all the elements that make a story great. It's odd, because it's a book I'd readily recommend to anyone, it just wasn't for me.
For a second opinion of the same book, check out what Maria has to say.