Monday, April 16, 2018

Circe by Madeline Miller

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

So begins the story of Circe, eldest and least favorite daughter of Helios, sun god and the mightiest of the Titans. Not pretty enough. Not clever enough. Unloved by both her powerful father and her alluring mother, Circe must find her own way in an unforgiving world.

Early in the book, Circe discovers that she has the power of witchcraft. One tragic act of love, followed by an ill-conceived act of jealousy that will haunt her throughout the book leads Zeus to banish Circe to the deserted island of Aiaia, threatened by her growing skills. There she hones her craft and comes in contact with some of the most famous names in mythology – Daedalus and his son Icarus, Medea, the Minotaur, Odysseus and Penelope, Hermes, and the powerful Athena.  

Her desire to protect what she loves the most leads to a final show-down with Athena. Circe must come to terms with her own power as a woman and as a god and decide, once and for all, where her loyalties lie. I’ll give you a hint.

You threw me to the crows, but it turns out I prefer them to you.

This was a fabulous book. I enjoyed Madeline Miller’s previous book, The Song of Achilles, but Circe won me over 100%. Perhaps it was because it was such a personal story – one woman’s journey – that it resonated with me so completely. We see Circe develop from an unsure, awkward, daddy-worshipping nymph to a strong, resilient, powerful witch. She is not perfect. She makes mistakes. But she rises above her shortcomings and embraces her power as a woman and as a witch.

It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures—flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.

You do not have to be a lover of mythology to enjoy this book. The writing is stunning and there are so many quotable lines that I am in awe of Miller. For being a story about an immortal being, it is incredibly relatable. Circe’s is not a happy story – this is Greek tragedy, after all. You know when she is exiled to Aiaia that her life is not going to be an easy one. You want her to find love, to find happiness. But instead, she is dealt heartache after heartache. But it’s in that heartache that you see her character really develop. And watching her deal with adversity is what makes her story so very relatable – despite being a god. Despite being immortal. Despite being a witch. At heart, she is a woman who has been beaten down time and again by powerful men and a world order that values brute force over intelligence. That values beauty over strength. That values men over women. I don’t know a woman anywhere who could not relate to Circe’s struggles. To the unfairness of the cards she is dealt.

“It is not fair,” I said. “I cannot bear it.”
“Those are two different things,” my grandmother said.

But bear it, she does. The unfairness and everything else life throws at her.

I loved the relationships within the book, the best of which is the relationship between Circe and her son. Motherhood is described so perfectly in this book. It is not all happiness and light. Like all first-time mothers, Circe is ill-prepared for the truth of motherhood.

I did not go easy to motherhood. I faced it as soldiers face their enemies, girded and braced, sword up against the coming blows. Yet all my preparations were not enough.

Circe’s son is not an easy child. He screams incessantly. He never sits still. Though she is a god, he exhausts her to the depth and breadth of her being. No matter how ill-equipped she was for motherhood, however, the love Circe feels for her son is all-encompassing and something to which most parents can relate. The ferocity she feels as a mother was so intense that she thought it would surely be her undoing.

I would look at him and feel a love so sharp it seemed my flesh lay open. I made a list of all the things I would do for him. Scald off my skin. Tear out my eyes. Walk my feet to bones, if only he would be happy and well.

He was not happy. A moment, I thought, I only need one moment without his damp rage in my arms. But there was none. He hated sun. He hated wind. He hated baths. He hated to be clothed, to be naked, to lie on his belly, and his back. He hated this great world and everything in it, and me, so it seemed, most of all.

Have you ever heard a more eloquent description of the ferocious love and drowning uncertainty of parenthood? Miller described it perfectly. Remember that old saying about having your heart forever walking around outside your body? Circe got it.

My madness in those days rose from a new certainty: that at last, I had met the thing the gods could use against me.  

At its heart, Circe is a re-telling of classic mythology with a feminist slant. All of the characters – but particularly the female characters – are fully realized and perfectly written. There is love and madness and murder and mystery and mayhem and dysfunctional families galore, but ultimately, it is the story of one woman claiming agency in a world that has underestimated her from the beginning.

Pretty cool, huh?

Go read it. Now. You will not regret it.


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