Madeline Miller’s titan of a book lives up to its hype, especially as an audio title.
Story (Content & Storytelling)
I’m going to level with you: I was dubious when Madeline Miller’s Circe was announced as a top book for 2018. I held out as long as I could. Even for someone who reads as much fiction as I do, I was skeptical that a retelling of one of the most grueling tales I’ve endured in my life as a reader (looking at you, Odyssey) could offer any sort of reading pleasure.
But the buzz persisted, and I am nothing if not reasonable. So I downloaded the title to my Libro.fm library and pressed play. I could not help myself, with even the first breathy lines I fell into the story and barely came up for air until its end.
Miller’s tale takes you through the mythological stories we’ve all been made to study, from a different consideration– that of an immortal point of view. Similar to what Gregory Maguire accomplished with the release of Wicked (though, with much more finesse in the language and refinement to the voice), Miller asks readers to understand familiar stories from new points of view. It was interesting and fun to travel from one story I knew to another, and the protagonist Miller builds in the titan goddess Circe is far more approachable and likable (and human) than I expected.
I had always taken for granted that there would be a bit of infighting among the Greek gods, but Miller brings to life in her characters such vanity and vengeance and spite that they feel more real, more grounded, more tangible than other mythological retellings. And Circe, in contrast, felt relatable, the most human among them, with her trivial grabs at love, acceptance, jealousy, vindication. It was done on purpose, of course, with Miller calling out the mortal elements in her from the very beginning, but as a reader who always looks for herself in the pages of a book, I found sympathy for Circe in her struggles (and frustration when I saw mirrors in her behavior that reflected back unflattering things I know to be true about my own character).
Miller’s examination of relationships sat closer to home than I expected from a Greek mythological work of fiction, too. The familial relationships and all their dysfunctional rivalries and jealousies are astoundingly recognizable. And in Circe and Penelope’s evolving relationship, we see our heroine get the friendship she deserved after a life of real and absolute solitude. It’s interesting, given the intersection of the women’s separate histories, that it was Penelope of all the female characters in the book that would at last offer Circe respect and friendship– and it’s interesting that it came at a point in the story when Circe had personally evolved past the point of needing that to feel whole. Isn’t that always the way, though? I suppose even goddesses must first be happy with themselves before they can be happy with others. Miller’s take on the interpersonal facets of the tale is what sets it apart from its peers in the genre; the interactions each and all felt authentic, and this is a book that stands firmly on the foundation its characters built.
I appreciated that the nuances of the magic were not overdone. It was an element of the story, but Miller kept the plot focused on the characters and their motives, not the tools they used to play out their grand plans. And I won’t give the ending away, but I will say that I love the symmetry of Circe’s discovery of magic and self that ultimately ties back onto itself in a neat bow in the final chapter of the story. It felt right, that her character and her gifts and aspirations would settle where she landed, and Miller left readers, ultimately, with a story that was as satisfying as it was entertaining.
Length & Pacing
Credit for the book’s perfect pace has to go to narrator, Perdita Weeks. I’m sure in print the book would have had pages I skimmed instead of faithfully devoured word by word, but in its audio format, the pacing in Weeks’s care was spot-on, balanced to move you through action and hold your attention in the slower and more serene scenes.
Narration and Writing
Buckle up, because it’s about to get fan-girl in here. I am a sucker for a writer who has an acute mastery of language and Miller wields each sentence like a blade honed to cut to the heart of her story. The language was so lush, so deep, so immersive. It perfectly suited a tale with such an epic scope– hundreds of generations long– and with such an epic scale, all the mystical lands of Greek mythology.
But it was the narrative talent of Perdita Weeks that turned this book from a story into an immersive tale. The way the language rolled off her tongue was nothing short of magic in itself. Weeks spun the perfect balance of cadence, articulation, pacing, and voice differentiation to the tale. You could feel the frustrations, the tempers, the yearning of the characters in her inflections. You could taste the anger, and rage, and the drive for revenge in her tone. The long, rolling, breathy airs she layered into the more romantic literary passages giving way to the cut and clipped staccato of action, impatience, spite.
With any other narrator, I don’t think I would have loved the book so much. But in the careful care of Weeks, it came to life in such a vivid and engrossing way that I’m already working it back into rotation in my “To Be Re-Read” playlist. I cannot more highly recommend a title based solely on narration alone.
Loved it. Recommending it to everyone I know that likes literary fiction, fantasy, Greek mythology, and best sellers.
Official Book Description: In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child – not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring, like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power – the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur; Daedalus and his doomed son, Icarus; the murderous Medea; and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from or the mortals she has come to love.
With unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language and pause-resisting suspense, Circe is a triumph of storytelling, an intoxicating epic of family rivalry, palace intrigue, and love and loss as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man’s world.