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Review: Circe, by Madeline Miller
Little, Brown, 2018. 385 pp. $28

From the earliest age, the sun god Helios’ youngest daughter fits nowhere and has no friends, only detractors; and are they vicious. Circe is stupid, ugly, awkward, has no common sense, and speaks like a mortal, they say. Like any child, she yearns for some sign, however faint, of paternal affection, but Helios can’t bear the sight of her, and her mother jokes at her expense like everyone else in the sun god’s great hall.

In divine eyes, Circe’s flaw is possessing empathy, for which they have no use and regard as weakness. They weigh every moment, every interaction, as a barometer of who’s got more power, more adoration, and more of whatever admirable trait under discussion, whether physical strength, beauty, or cleverness.

What an exhausting, empty way to live, except that gods don’t live, exactly; they simply exist. And Circe sticks out because she’s dissatisfied with that, and the whole narcissistic one-upmanship game that defines the divine presence. In fact, her first act of rebellion is to offer succor to the suffering Prometheus, an outcast.

When she turns to witchcraft, Helios considers her too dangerous to keep on hand, so he banishes her to an island called Aiaia. In case that’s not in your atlas, just sail north from Scylla and Charybdis, fabled pitfalls from the Odyssey. But Odysseus won’t show up for a while. And before he does, Circe will have her hands full with her older sister, Pasiphaë, who births the Minotaur; Daedalus; and Medea, among others. So the novel offers plenty of action, while portraying its protagonist’s growth from unwanted waif to a power that even Helios and Athena must reckon with.

The measure of this novel is not that Circe comes into her own because she concocts the right potions, though she’s skilled at that. Rather, she grows into herself. I’ve never read a coming-of-age novel that unfolds over centuries, but that’s what Circe is. You can see why teenage girls have embraced this book the way they have; the feminist themes, simple, direct language, and absolute clarity of action and intention may be found in good young adult novels. But I don’t mean to limit Circe’s readership, for Miller has invested her narrative with adult themes and conflicts as well.

Circe and Odysseus, circa 490-480 BCE, National Archaeological Museum, Athens (courtesy Marsyas, via Wikimedia Commons)

For one thing, she grapples with the meaning of life, contrasting it with the immortality that, while attractive, remains unfulfilling precisely because it’s predictable and unchanging. The uncertainty that troubles human dealings is also life’s greatest attribute. Further, Miller delves into issues involving marriage and childrearing — only a parent could have written certain passages — weighing what price each exacts and what benefits each confers. Finally, the author considers the thirst for glory and fame, as exemplified by Odysseus, a brilliantly conceived character:

Moment by moment, his vitality had returned. His eyes were bright now, storm-lit. When he talked, he was lawyer and bard and crossroads charlatan at once, arguing his case, entertaining, pulling back the veil to show you the secrets of the world. It was not just his words, though they were clever enough. It was everything together: his face, his gestures, the sliding tones of his voice. I would say it was like a spell he cast, but there was no spell I knew that could equal it. The gift was his alone.

I confess, I avoided reading Circe because I struggled to get through fifty pages of Miller’s previous novel, The Song of Achilles. But Circe feels like a more confident, deeper, more fully fleshed creation, avoiding the pitfalls that plague lesser retellings of Greek myths that I mentioned last week. Miller knows the myths and culture inside and out, has parsed out every detail of thought, action, and physical setting, and invites you to share that intimacy.

Even so, she never persuades me, even for an instant, that her characters will diverge from the path ordained from them, an illusion I look for and treasure in these retellings, as I also wrote last week. Circe appears to hew pretty closely to the myths I know, though I don’t pretend to be an expert. Also, as I said, the narrative is simple and direct, so, though I see artistry here, I wouldn’t call it subtle. Moreover, it’s an episodic tale rather than a unified story building to a climax, and though the episodes hold my interest and are often tense, as with many biographical novels, I want more cohesion and force.

Nevertheless, Circe is a wonderful book, and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.