Five stars. In this epic re-imagining of the myth(s) of goddess Circe, Madeline Miller recasts a sorceress best known for transforming sailors into pigs in The Odyssey into a deeply empathetic, deeply human woman. The writing is spring-loaded, pungent. She favors metaphor over simile, and the payoff is huge: the prose moves with lean agility, propelling us breathlessly forward as we leap from imagistic line to imagistic line (a favorite: when she describes Odysseus as “The spiral shell. Always another curve out of sight.” (!!!)) This pacing urgency, this inexorability of plot, in fact seems to me one of the most remarkable achievements of the book: the conjuring of the present, awash in the interminable, unknowable, terrifying hopeful promise of what comes next. Miller delivers to us only what Circe knows and feels at a given moment, singly revealing to us what is within her ken. It is only over time, looking back over our shoulders, that we learn her mistakes and puzzle over the reflection we are able to glean through the interpretations of others, whether from Odysseus through the voice of Penelope or Pasiphae telling Circe that she hung too close to their father as a child. This achievement is startling in the sense that — for those of us who have read the classics, and even many who have not — the storylines are familiar and we know how plot lines will end. And yet I found myself anxiously hanging on every word, the imagery, the psychology so harrowing and new.
Many Magpies have already commented on and applauded the feminist slant of this work. At one point, reflecting on her relationship with Odysseus, Circe herself states: “Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting. I was not surprised by the portrait of myself, the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime for poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.” This book sets out to prove the opposite. The female characters in this book are strong, empowered, and independent, their spirits and desires as wide and formidable as any man’s. I think of Athena, of Medea, of course of Circe, and in particular of Scylla, that “bitch with a cliff for a heart.” (Wow.) Her enormous proportions, her nine-headedness, her insatiability, the fact that she kept her legs tucked into the side of a mountain so seafarers never fully understood the extent of her size — and that searing image of her falling limbs striking the water with tidal force when she is finally killed. And then the recurring phrase Circe utters throughout the book: “you do not know what lies within me.” It’s not quite posturing, either; she never fully knows the extent of her powers, even — or especially — when she realizes that her magic is more about will than anything else. There are multiple points at which Circe is unsure of whether a particular spell will work or not; she, too, is unsure of the depths of her own determination, her own power. But she uses this to her advantage, even maneuvering her selfish, hot-headed (pun intended!) father Helios to lift her exile by gesturing to the fact that he does not know what she is capable of.
This shapeless potency of Circe’s, the unknowable depth of her strength, is central to everything in the book, a kind of key to understanding what’s happening throughout. Circe is part nymph, part god — not fullway either. She is ejected by and disowned from her family, even before Helios makes the split official by exiling her — and yet she is still understood and identified through her familial connections. She is jealous and cunning and vengeful, but also fair-minded and empathetic and compassionate. She lives on an island far from much of the action of the world in which she lives, but she also embroils herself in much of its acrimony. In other words, she is liminal. Importantly, though, her liminality is wholly distinct from the kind to which she was relegated in The Odyssey, where she is presented as “yet another one of Odysseus’s challenges.” In The Odyssey, she is the outcast sorceress whom the hero must outwit in order to prevent himself from being transformed into a pig. What we learn in this retelling, of course, is that Circe has cast this spell not out of crackpot witchery but out of self-defense against the disgusting men who have tried to take advantage of her while alone. In other words, we move from Circe as the flat ancillary “other” who must be conquered and whose story is wholly subjugated to the Grand Narrative of Odysseus the Explorer to Circe, the round central character whose depths cannot fully be plumbed. She is unknowable in a different kind of way, even from the first line of the book, which sent shivers down my spine: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” In this powerhouse opener, Miller shows us that Circe defies language. She is so unknowable, she cannot been captured in words. This is a startling way to open a book, if you think about it: Miller is pointing us to the unsophisticated bluntness of language even as she uses it herself. There is something profound about the statement here that doubles back on itself when Circe describes her misguided portraits by bards: women like Circe have not yet been achieved in words, have not yet been fully liberated through language. This book is an attempt to right that wrong, to name things as they are.
Circe Book Club Questions.
+Many of the classics begin in media res, or “in the middle of things.” The Odyssey, for example, begins halfway through Odysseus’ wanderings rather than at the dawn of the Trojan War, which launched the narrative to begin with. Madeline Miller’s Circe is more of a genesis story: it opens with Circe’s birth. Why?
+Similarly, why does Circe’s story end when it does, with unfinished business to attend to, i.e., the state of conflict with her family and the departure of her beloved son? (Or is there no unfinished business, to your mind?)
+What did you make of the description of Circe’s voice, a source of belittlement by her family and yet an advantage from time to time when she was interacting with mortals throughout her story? Why was this detail mentioned so many times throughout the book?
+Did you relate to Circe? At what point(s)?
+What did you make of her string of attractions to mortals — first Glaucos, then Daedalus, then Odysseus, and finally Telemachus?
+What did you make of the whole plot line where she transforms Glaucos into a god and then transforms Scylla into “her true self”? What are your thoughts on those transformations and on what they revealed to Circe?
+How do you feel about Penelope? What was her role in the book?
+What was the climax of the book do you think? Why? And what does this say about the central battle/challenge that Circe was grappling with?
November Book Club.
I am so torn on the book selection for November that I am going to have the ladies at my in-person book club this evening cast votes. (Feel free to weigh in below in the comments, too — I’ll weigh your voices equally!)
+Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. This book is winning all kinds of awards and the snippet I read was highly captivating. I am also salivating over this line from the NYT review: “Builds to one of the most memorable final scenes I’ve read in a novel this century.” Wowza. The book purports to be about the push and pull of family, personal ambition, and love, with three siblings at its heart.
+An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. I mentioned at the end of our last book club that maybe we should permit some male authors into our little feminist knot. This seems a particular piquant choice given the title and the fact that the author is a man who tells a personal narrative from the perspective of an elderly female. This alone intrigued me. It has also won dozens of awards. It is described as “a breathtaking portrait of one reclusive woman’s late-life crisis, which garnered a wave of rave reviews and love letters to Alameddine’s cranky yet charming septuagenarian protagonist, Aaliya, a character you “can’t help but love.”
+The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Gowar. This book was effusively reviewed by Madeline Miller herself as “completely transporting.” It is an imaginative novel set in in 1780s London, when “a prosperous merchant finds his quiet life upended when he unexpectedly receives a most unusual creature—and meets a most extraordinary woman.” The book “examines our capacity for wonder, obsession, and desire with all the magnetism, originality, and literary magic of The Essex Serpent.”
I’ll update you with next month’s pick tomorrow. Let’s plan on convening Thursday, November 29th to discuss! Local New York ladies: email me if you want to be on the list for details for the in-person convening!
+I loved Circe so much that I already purchased Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, a VERY well-reviewed retelling of Virgil’s Aenid from the perspective of Lavinia, the king’s daughter with whom the hero is destined to found an empire. I’ve heard much about Le Guin, who is better known for her science fiction works, but never read anything of hers, largely owing to her chosen genre. (Though, maybe I should try?) Anyway, I can’t wait to get started on this one but might need a breather from the classics first.
+If Circe were alive today (and…non-mythical), I’m pretty sure she’d be wearing this.
+I wore these hot pink Aquazzura kitten heels to the rehearsal dinner of one of my dearest friends last weekend and got so many compliments on them. It made me wonder why I don’t wear more hot pink — I used to wear the color all.the.time but have shied away in recent years. I promptly added this to my Shopbop cart and swooned over these.
+Very into this oversized blazer situation.
+THIS JUMPSUIT! So ladylike and chic. I want to wear it with black suede pumps and pretend like I work in fih-non-se (finance) for a minute.
+Love this sweatshirt.
+Don’t ask me how, but this chic varsity jacket is somehow marked down from nearly $700 to $144. LOVE IT.