I was honestly torn about how I felt about this book for quite a long time. My first impression of the book was that these were pretty terrible people – and, though I do love a good dysfunctional family, and don’t always feel that you have to like the characters in a book in order to enjoy reading about them, this felt a bit over the top. I struggled a great deal with these characters, until something clicked for me in the end (perhaps being more mindful about their individual connections to mythology – more about that below). By the final pages, I started to feel quite sentimental towards the characters. I found myself getting teary, realizing that without my being fully aware of it they had sort of sprung up in my heart after all.
Olympus, Texas is meant to be a sweeping family drama with multiple allusions to mythology (more on that below – I don’t think it’s a spoiler to connect them so directly with their mythological counterpoint and yet some readers might find joy in doing that on their own – and if that might be you, don’t read the bottom portion of this review). Peter Briscoe, real estate agent and the philandering husband, married to June, the long-suffering wife. They have three adult children – Thea, a lawyer who lives far away from her family on purpose, Hap, a local welder and general fixer of people and things, and March, the prodigal son. March has been out of town for two years because of his dalliance with Hap’s wife, the beautiful Vera. Although Peter has made an attempt to reform himself for his wife, June, he has had plenty of extramarital affairs, and it took him a while to learn to use protection. He has three children who also live in Olympus – Burke, mentioned a few times but essentially a plot device here, and much more prominent in our story (and the lives of the Briscoe’s) twins Artie and Arlo. The twin’s mother Lee is a depressive woman who lives near to the Briscoe family so that her children can grow up with their father – despite the icy treatment from June towards Lee. June eventually warms to the twins, especially Artie, and the five children grow up as brothers and sisters.
The action of the story takes place over a week. As mentioned above, March returns to Olympus because he wants to end his self imposed exile after his affair with his brother’s wife was discovered. March also suffers from Intermittent Explosive Disorder, a condition in which he will occasionally enter a rage so deep that he loses all control as he unleashes those emotions on whoever is nearest to him. As you might imagine, his family suffered because of this condition a great deal (although it doesn’t seem as if much was actually done to help to solve that problem). Those long standing resentments, plus the more recent interference in his brother’s marriage, mean that March’s reception in town is not exactly enthusiastic.
The twins Artie and Arlo are more or less happy to welcome March back. Artie is a lover of nature – she’s a woman more apt to be found hunting and fishing. She has been the tour manager for her brother’s band, which has had some limited commercial success. Arlo returns from a tour to try to convince Artie to resume her role as their tour manager – but Artie struggles to share with Arlo that she no longer wants that role. She has fallen in love with Ryan, the son of Lavinia Barry who has nursed a long standing grudge against Peter Briscoe. Because of that family feud, plus Artie’s fears about Arlo’s judgment that she is giving up being with him on tour in favor of a much smaller life, Artie and Ryan more or less keep their relationship quiet from their families (although many people in the town are aware that they are together).
With March back in town, and tension between Artie and Arlo growing ever stronger, the tension in the book steadily rises, until something tragic occurs midway through. That event continues to propel the tension, hurtling the characters towards a climax that I didn’t at all expect to feel earned or emotional invested in – until I reached it with the characters and somehow, it just worked for me.
Although I ended up really enjoying this book and appreciating what the author did, there were problems for me. A big one was that this book was really focused on white people problems. When a writer in 2022 talks about when a location in Texas as “settled” without any allusions to the way the land was actually stolen or any sort of acknowledgement of how bullshit the whole concept of “settling” is, I think that diminishes the quality of the work. As mentioned above, I really hated everyone in this book for such a long time that it was difficult to enjoy the novel. Parts of the story were a real stretch to believe – particularly the dramatic, tragic action in the center of the second half. I also really disliked the way the book treated women. June was seriously blamed for the faults of her grown children, because she didn’t leave Peter?! I understand she allowed her anger to take over her parenting, and she wasn’t a role model as a mother – but honestly, she didn’t deserve the vitriol, especially from Vera. Oh, and Vera – I’m quite over the thing where a beautiful woman blames her (truly unfortunate, not all all deserved) interactions with horrible men on her BEAUTY rather than the men’s issues! Do women who are not conventionally attractive just never get raped? Do they never suffer from harassment? Of course they do, it’s not just your beauty, Vera – you’ve had the unfortunate experience of being a fucking WOMAN. People don’t abuse only beautiful women. Men don’t stalk ONLY beautiful women. It’s not your qualities that inspire abuse, it’s theirs – women who are less attractive experience all of those things, and more because there’s all sorts of penalties for not living up to Western standards of beauty in a Western country. Despite these flaws, the book did have an impact on me as I finished it, and if you’re interested in mythology this makes for an interesting read.
Here’s my take on some connections to mythology – if you don’t want to read about that, stop here! Go read the book and then come back and tell me if you think I’ve got something wrong! Also, some of these connections are slightly spoiler-ish, so read with caution!
Although I’ve heard some refer to the mythology here as “Greek” mythology, she actually mixes Greek and Roman naming conventions (well, if you think the names of the characters are related to the names of the gods, which they seem to be). I’ll list both the Greek and Roman names here (Roman / Greek), so you can see what I mean. I taught a unit on Ancient Rome earlier this year, and my students completed projects on Roman gods, so I feel like I have had a recent opportunity to refresh my memory of these things – there were certainly plenty of correlations between Greek and Roman mythology.
Obviously, Olympus, Texas is … Mount Olympus (that’s the Roman styling of the name)
Peter – Jupiter / Zeus (total horndog, in love with his wife and yet cannot keep it in his pants)
June – Juno / Hera (loves her husband, but is a ball of jealous rage when it comes to the ladies he interacts with)
Lee – Latona / Leto (mother of the twins)
Thea – Minerva / Athena (intelligent, sprang from father’s head, thus inspiring mother’s jealousy)
Hap – Vulcan / Hephaestus (god of fire, welder, husband of Venus, betrayed by Mars)
March – Mars / Ares (god of war – lots of rage)
Artie – Diana / Artemis (goddess of nature, the hunter)
Arlo – Apollo (the only god with the same name in Roman and Greek) (twin of Diana / Artemis, god of money)
Vera – Venus / Aphrodite (beautiful, goddess of love)
March’s dogs, Romulus and Remus – in Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus are brothers, sons of March – the founders of Rome – they eventually engage in murderous combat with each other
Ryan – Orion – whose story is essentially the latter half of this novel
Hayden – Pluto / Hades (god of the underworld – apt for the funeral home director)
I’m sure there are plenty of other allusions that I haven’t captured here – Lavinia Barry and Cole must also have counterparts.