CIRCE by Madeline Miller
Little Brown and Co, April 10, 2018
Like so many other readers, I was a huge fan of Madeline Miller’s debut The Song of Achilles. I wouldn’t call it a flawless piece of literature or even a flawless Iliad adaptation, but it utterly consumed me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks, and I have no hesitations when I say that it’s one of my favorite books. My feelings about Circe are much more complicated.
In many ways, you could argue that it surpasses The Song of Achilles from an objective standpoint. The scope of Circe is much larger, and Miller crafts an absolutely stunning arc for her titular character. I put Circe down feeling so satisfied with the conclusion that I wanted to give it 5 stars solely for that mastery… but clearly I did not end up doing that, so let’s back up.
My first issue with Circe was the unnecessarily languid pace. For one thing, there is no reason this book needs to be nearly 400 pages. There is just not that much going on. And for another thing, so many of the subplots in this novel happen offstage, so to speak. In case you aren’t familiar with the original story: Circe is exiled to the island Aiaia and unable to leave. Consequently, a lot of background information is obtained secondhand, from other characters visiting the island and relaying information to Circe. It doesn’t exactly make for the most thrilling narrative.
This ties into that, but due to Circe’s immortality, the stakes in this novel are constantly low. Any altercations that could theoretically result in Circe being killed or injured have absolutely no tension, because you know it’s all going to be okay (physically, at least, if not emotionally). Circe’s immortality is approached beautifully on a thematic level, but not necessarily on a narrative one.
Now let’s talk about Circe herself. This is something I’m sort of conflicted about. Circe is one of those characters from Greek mythology who doesn’t have her own literature, but she features into the background of so many different stories (the Odyssey, notably, but also Theogony, the now lost Telegony, the Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to name a few). Though none of these stories explore Circe’s life in the way that Miller has endeavored to do, we do get a sense of who she is – a ruthless witch who dwells in solitude and turns men into pigs for sport. That… is not the Circe that Miller gives us. Hers is soft, tame, misunderstood – and the thing is, none of it blatantly contradicts anything from mythological canon. Circe in this novel does turn men into pigs – and Miller shows how she gets there. But at times I still felt like I was reading about an original character, and not Circe. I mean, it all turned out okay. Like I said, the arc that Miller wrote was brilliant. It just took some time to adjust my expectations of how I thought this character was going to be portrayed. (Also, this is only sort of related, but another point of confusion for me were some of the myths that Miller decided to incorporate into Circe’s narrative… though some of her invented stories fit very well. It was sort of a mixed bag for me.)
I know this has been largely critical, but I did like this. It was super readable, I thought the background characters were fascinating (Pasiphaë in particular was really excellent), and I adored the ending. And, as always, I love Greek mythology. I’d rather read Greek mythology retellings than almost anything else. I loved diving back into this world, especially so soon after re-reading the Odyssey. But, I’ve said this before: I tend to be critical of the things I love the most. This is a solid book that many fans are going to love just as much, if not more, than The Song of Achilles. I’ll be very curious to hear what everyone else thinks.
Anyway, this is a very solid 3.5 – I’m rounding down for now solely because I seem to have written a 3-star review instead of a 4-star one, but I may revisit my rating after I’ve thought about this some more.
Thank you so much to Little, Brown and Co and Madeline Miller for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.