Jun 11 2018

Circe by Madeline Miller

(I’m quite proud of myself for cramming this book into my schedule before I had to return it to the library, so props to meee!)

Circe is a fantastic meditation on the stages of womanhood and on what it means to be human, bringing a minor character from Greek mythology to the forefront with her own compelling tale. Most people know that Circe is a sorceress who transformed Odysseus’ men to swine but was then charmed by him into not only changing them back but also into helping him continue his voyage. The rest of her story, however, is far less known, even to a mythology nerd like me. Madeline Miller gathers all the information extant on this character and builds a story that not only finds the beating heart of this remarkable figure but also shows with sensitivity and skill how universal are her desires and fears.

In all honesty, for long stretches of the book, I found Circe herself to be annoying. But it was sort of in the way I’d look back on my younger self and, if I was being perfectly honest with myself, cringe at how raw and silly I was in comparison to who I am today (tho to my credit, it didn’t take me hundreds of years to sort myself out, Circe.) I wasn’t a huge fan of her parenting style either. I get that being a single mother in exile makes for lonely, even crazy-making work (and God knows I have a lot of sympathy for other moms because children can be little demons,) but I felt that she took her son far too seriously. It isn’t the end of the world if he has a freak out: let him cry himself out in a safe area while you read a book or whatever the ancient Greek equivalent was. Even so, there were enough reminders of the timelessness of the female experience that made me feel for her throughout. By the time Telegonus had grown up and was eager to sail beyond Aiaia, I was 100% Team Circe. And oh that ending!

I was also impressed with the way other female characters were presented, especially Pasiphae and Penelope. Despite Circe being the heroine of the piece, it was clear that the other women, tho ostensibly her rivals, were pretty badass in their own right. I loved how Pasiphae skewered Circe’s self-pitying view of herself, and the relationship between Circe and Penelope was note perfect, complex and fraught until it wasn’t. I also loved how Circe finally confronted Helios, an emancipation that took her waaaaay too long but which I was glad for nevertheless.

Ms Miller writes with prose that is beautiful but rarely intrusive, and when it does jump out at you from the narrative, it’s hard not to stop and admire what she’s doing as her words seem to ring a bell within your heart (or my heart, I should say.) She tackles topics and achieves narrative triumphs that have few parallels in fiction, husbanding the familiar myths to tell fresh new stories that carry so much meaning in our modern world. I’m glad I had time to read this before plunging back into work reading.

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