Circe by Madeline Miller

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I’m shocked Circe is only 385 pages long. It feels like a vast and sprawling epic, as though it could be five or six books in one. It feels like oceans and mountains and multitudes, which is surprising not only considering its length but also because the majority of it takes place in a single location, the island of Aiaia where Circe is exiled. Somehow, despite this, it spans countries, centuries, viewpoints, and emotions.

Expanding upon the Greek myth, this book casts the Titan goddess in a new light, one that is feminist and humanist. Circe gains a deeper respect for humans than her fellow gods, who fail to see them as more than pawns. Her unique viewpoint among divinity is informed by her own treatment by her family, who revile her as much as any mortal when they’re not being actively worshiped by them.

Circe offers explanations for its protagonist’s habit of turning sailors into pigs and her desperate act of transforming the nymph Scylla into a monster. It adds depth to a common narrative surrounding powerful women — that they must be ill-tempered, ugly, and generally unlikable, luring men into their capricious traps. It allows Circe her flaws and mistakes (she’s still jealous of Scylla) but gives her agency and remorse. Her story here is told by a woman, not by a man as a thinly-veiled allegory that furthers the stories of other men (namely Odysseus and Jason).

Circe reads much like a coming-of-age story. At its core, it’s about a woman who comes into her own, transforming from an idealistic young Titan into a self-determined sorceress who learns how complex humans can be, alternately wanting to save and eschew them, all the while dealing with the familial difficulties that arise from being part of a pantheon of gods in a world that is defined by such things as status and beauty.

Miller’s prose is exquisite. It moved me to tears, particularly during one part which I wouldn’t dare spoil because it should be discovered the way things once were, by witnessing it in its rawest form. I can’t wait to read Song of Achilles, Miller’s other published novel about heroic yet ill-fated Achilles and his lover Patroclus.

Bottom line: Miller’s epic is a sympathetic retelling of Circe, whose sweeping insight had me reeling as I experienced her pain, love, and solitude through the author’s clear-flowing prose.

heart FAVORITES SHELF

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