Circe
by Madeline Miller
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7 + 111 in other languages
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Just as awesome as Achilles, but different.
I loved Song of Achilles and was excited for this book. Circe is a very different character from Achilles but I grew fond of her and enjoyed her unique story and the references to events in the other book. I learned a lot about the Gods' character and behavior that I didn't in her first book. While Circe's story may be somewhat less "epic", it's no less entertaining and interesting. Circe is a different story with a different kind of pacing. The way Ms. Miller describes Achilles, it's hard not to idolize him. And Patroclus was endearing and I wish Ms. Miller could find a way to resurrect him somehow (though she probably shouldn't). It only makes sense though that the protagonist of her second novel be a very different character. Circe was not a major figure in the Odyssey; in fact when I first opened the book I realized I got her mixed up with Calypso. But I won’t make that mistake anymore. This minor character has now become my favourite character of all thanks to this author’s brilliant work.
Because this book is told from Circe’s point of view, we get to intimately know her - not just her history and story but her thoughts as well. The reason this is so important is because we come to empathize with Circe. We tend to think of the Greek Gods as so fickle and often cruel - and indeed they are often depicted that way - yet with Circe, we meet a goddess who is so human and so very, very likable.
Circe manages to be an absolutely beautiful novel. Here we see the birth of Circe and her rather solitary upbringing. Her parents, Helios and Perse, are indifferent to her at best. Her siblings, Pasiphae, Aeetes, and Perses, are more loved, more popular, and seemingly better suited to life as Titan divinities. Circe is criticized and bullied and yearns for companionship. Her incidental meeting with a mortal and her subsequent love for him causes her to seek out and use her power(s) to make him a god. Circe turns her rival, Scylla, into a monster that lived in a narrow strait of water opposite her counterpart, Charybdis. Circe's meddling turns Zeus against her and she is exiled to her island, Aiaia. There her destiny to meet and love Odysseus. Circe’s experiences include her meeting and interacting with various other figures from Greek myth, and it’s a big part of the enjoyment of this novel to experience it the way the author intended, without knowing what is going to happen next. Although this novel is about a god, it’s really a story about what it means to be human. Miller was able to imbue her heroine with the same human frailties and fears as those of us mere mortals: the love of a mother, the burning shame of disgrace, the slow and fast at once finding of ones identity and center, the ways in which we all reach for more than perhaps we know, the giddiness of losing ones fear and with it, the donning of grace and gratitude. The most interesting aspect of this story to me was how women, even divine ones, were treated. In the Odyssey, Circe is simply painted as a witch who enjoys turning men into pigs for her own enjoyment, a one-dimensional woman who is sexually free, and therefore evil (in contrast to Ulysses' wife Penelope, who is steadfast, faithful and shown (one-dimensionally) as intelligent and beautiful. In this novel, we come to understand Circe's motives. And why shouldn't she have had them? Circe is such a wonderfully complex character. She is full of flaws and selfishness along side guilt and empathy. In this book there are no clear villains and heroes, just characters full of life and contradictions.
“In a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”
“Within him was an ocean’s worth of grief, which could only be stoppered a moment, never emptied.”
“It is youth’s gift not to feel its debts.”
“Those who fight against prophecy only draw it more tightly around their throats.”