Although I’m vaguely aware of the Odyssey from various school projects and references, I have very little knowledge or interest in the Greek gods and Greek myths. So Circe (2018), by Madeline Miller, did not at first grab my attention–even though it was on NPR’s Best Books of 2018 list. But then a number of Cannonballers named it their favorite book last year, and I decided I should give it a chance.
Circe is a nymph and a goddess. She is the daughter of Helios, the very powerful Titan Sun God. Apparently, Circe is something of a feminist retelling of the events in The Odyssey. The book begins with an interaction between Circe and Prometheus, right before he is punished by Zeus for bringing fire to mankind. The story follows Circe as she falls in love with a mortal man and discovers a power she didn’t know she had. She is then exiled to Aiaia–partly for her sins, but primarily as a convenient scapegoat to placate Zeus.
In exile in Aiaia, Circe discovers her power and takes part in a great many mythical stories that were famous enough for even me to know about. She helps birth the Minotaur and meets such famous figures as Daedalus, Odysseus, Hermes, and Medea. She gives birth to a son, Telegonus, and sacrifices almost everything in order to protect him. In the end, she finally takes control of her life, dealing with a monster she created and setting up her world the way she wants to live.
Despite my general lack of interest in the Greek myths, with such high praise, I was optimistic going into this novel. I’m also a fan of taking a male-dominated story and telling it from a feminine perspective. There was a lot that I liked about this novel. Circe has a very hard, lonely life and I couldn’t help feeling for her. Her relationships with her brother, father, and Glaucos were all painful stories of betrayal. I also very much liked the relationship between Circe and Odysseus, and especially how my view of Odysseus changed the more I knew about him. The relationship between Odysseus and his son was especially compelling.
I think most of my problems with the novel stem from the source material. The novel felt very episodic. Circe would meet someone, interact with them, then move on. Then she’d meet someone else, and it would happen again. Being immortal, you could imagine this going on for the rest of her life. With so many famous Greek figures, it’s hard to fit them in within a tight story line.
Circe’s small interaction with Prometheus felt so important that I kept expecting the story to come back to him somehow. [I can kind of see how this scene foreshadows Circe’s love of mortals, but it’s hard to understand that meaning until the end.] In addition, when you throw gods and magic in the mix, cause and effect began to feel pretty arbitrary. I think Miller did a good job with imbuing the novel with some feminist meaning that resonates today, but the novel, on the whole, did not feel grounded to me.
I’m guessing that if I were more familiar with the original source, I could appreciate the differences between Circe’s story and the original a little more. But I’m not. I liked the book and I’m glad I read it, but it wasn’t my favorite this year. 3.5 Stars
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.