The Uncertain Hour
What would you do if someone were to tell you that you had one more night to live? How would you spend those last hours? Titus Petronius, the protagonist of Jesse Browner’s new novel, is not a religious man. It is the year 66 AD and the Emperor Nero, who once called him his “Arbiter of Elegance,” has condemned him to choose between execution and suicide. Petronius chooses suicide, and decides to spend his last hours hosting an exquisite dinner for his friends. With the help of Melissa, the woman he loves and once abandoned, he arranges every detail of this last evening; “Far better to die with saffron than with rhetoric,” he thinks. Petronius wonders how his guests will react, frets about the dinner dishes, and looks back to figure out how he has ended up in this predicament.
A meditative, philosophical novel, The Uncertain Hour seizes the reader at once. Then Browner unfolds a deeply compassionate story of universal appeal, told in excruciating detail that is exotic and refined when it needs to be (the dinner dishes are fabulous). Petronius’s search for serenity and acceptance of his fate are profoundly moving. I found myself turning pages, knowing better but still hoping unreasonably for a different resolution.