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Review: Ariadne, by Jennifer Saint
Flatiron, 2021. 304 pp. $22

You all know the myth. Minos, king of Crete, keeps a monster, the Minotaur, in an impenetrable labyrinth that kills and eats humans. Every year, Athens sends young men and women as tribute, to be fed to the Minotaur. Except one year, Theseus, prince of Athens, takes his place among those chosen to die. And with the help of Ariadne, Minos’s elder daughter, he succeeds, against all odds. But once the hero has achieved his coup, which will grant him everlasting fame, what happens to Ariadne—and Phaedra, her younger sister—is another matter.

The Theseus-Minotaur myth offers a rich vein to explore, as Mary Renault did in The King Must Die. But Saint, as her title declares, focuses on the women—not just Ariadne but Phaedra; their mother, Pasiphae; and their sisters everywhere, whether abused wives, daughters forced into grotesque marriages, or victims of war and invasion.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, ca. 1520-23 (courtesy National Gallery, London, via Wikipedia; public domain)

Ariadne’s greatest virtue, I think, is Saint’s concept behind the characters, especially the two principals. She portrays Theseus as a man of physical presence and fearlessness utterly lacking in empathy or any feeling other than a thirst for adoration. He exists solely for glory, but as soon as he earns one trophy, he gets bored and goes off seeking others. Consequently, he imitates the gods, who have no empathy either, and who care only for how many worshipers they have and gifts they receive compared to their Olympian brethren. With that reinterpretation, Saint turns whole heroic ideal on its head, shows it to be a narcissistic lie. Brava.

But the years before Theseus comes to Crete, Ariadne has lived in terror and shame as sister to a monstrosity born of divine rape—Poseidon, having heard Minos brag about Pasiphae, impregnated her and made her a laughingstock. (Men indulge their pride; women suffer for it.) When her half-brother is still little, Ariadne tries to show him love and attention as best she can, and to reach her mother, who’s retreated into herself, failing at both. Saint excels here too, reimagining this relationship.

These are terrible burdens for a young girl to bear. Ariadne’s greatest—only—release becomes dancing:

I wove a complicated pattern across the wide, wooden circle, winding long red ribbons around my body. My bare feet beat out a wild, frantic rhythm on the polished tiles, and the long red tails swooped through the air, intertwining and dipping and swinging in time with me. As I danced faster and faster, the pounding of my feet grew louder in my head and blotted out the cruel laughter I heard tinkling behind me wherever I walked. I couldn’t even hear my brother’s low, guttural howls or the pleading cries of the unfortunates who were forced between those heavy, iron-bolted doors with the labrys etched deep into the stone above.

But Ariadne falls short in the telling. One passage may soar, sweeping you away, while the next may drop you into the trite or generic. Too many key moments involve long series of rhetorical questions to express moral or emotional confusion—a weak, overused device—and random descriptions or narration repeat words or phrases for no perceivable reason. Ariadne’s voice and thought process occasionally wanders from the ancient to the modern, rational world, particularly jarring because we’re dealing with a theocentric universe that knows nothing of Descartes or Bacon. Similarly, idioms like “I was floored” sit poorly on the tongue of an ancient Cretan princess. As for Phaedra, though well distinguished from her older sister, she seems to grow up almost overnight at age thirteen.

Halfway through, the narrative takes a momentous, exciting leap, as every novel should (and since I didn’t know that aspect of Ariadne’s myth, I won’t reveal it here, because the surprise element works beautifully). Suffice to say that Saint makes good use of these sections, some of my favorites in the book, to deepen the themes she introduces earlier.

As that part progresses, though, I get an uncomfortable feeling that, in Ariadne’s universe, everything men touch will invariably crumble, die, or rot from within. Only women have the capacity to nurture, speak and act honestly, or remain loyal. Men will always fall victim to glitter and glory; women won’t. This one-sided portrayal makes me roll my eyes, but it’s also a surprise, considering the psychological subtlety behind the premise and the main characters.

Ariadne will make you think, but as a novel, it’s uneven and inconsistent.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.