Thanks to all the Cannonball Read folks who raved about Madeline Miller this year. Because of the accolades, I read The Song of Achilles back in May and Circe in November and both were books that engaged and transported me. Thanks to my procrastinating ways, I decided to review both books together and because they’ve been reviewed by a lot of folks already, I thought I’d talk more about my experience reading them and spare you the plot summary.
I read Song of Achilles on my kindle, which is not my preferred mode, but I needed books for a two-week trip to China. It was an odd experience, reading this alternative version of the Iliad, a book I remember reading and feeling lukewarm about in high school, in a country with a completely different rhetorical tradition. By day, I was having an amazing culture-shock-filled experience living with a Chinese teacher I had hosted the fall before (I ate off the street, learned that there are no real rules of the road for cyclists or cars in Xi’an, and saw a cashless future for us all because everybody paid for everything with their phone) but at night I was wide awake with jet-lag-fueled insomnia. I read Song of Achilles late at night (or early in the morning) in chunks and I was surprised at how much the story pulled me in—given the cognitive overload and exhaustion I was experiencing. I was also surprised about how much I had forgotten about the story since that high school reading though I did remember what happened near the end.
After letting a mortal, Patroclus, tell the story of his star-crossed relationship with a demi-God, Achilles, I thought it was interesting that Madeline Miller flipped the script in Circe and focused on an immortal’s star-crossed relationship with humanity. The world of Gods that Miller recreates—of hierarchy and rivalry between the older Titans and newer Olympians—is both fascinating and a bit horrific. Into this setting, Circe is born—a child seeming to lack power and who is denigrated by almost everyone around her. Just like I felt for Patroclus as his fortunes plummeted, I felt for Circe, trapped in the “golden prison” of her father’s court. I also had several Supernatural moments throughout the book where I thought, “God are dicks!”
This time, the reading experience was less immersive. It was late November, the papers and projects I had to respond to were piling up, and I read the first half of the novel in smaller bits. However, on Thanksgiving, I ended up plowing through the second half in one sitting and getting a bit teary. Though I liked both books a lot, I think I loved Circe more and that has everything to do with her being a woman, me being a woman, and it being a weirder and more toxic 2018 than I could ever imagine. This was the book I needed to read last month and I’m still thinking about it.
Thanks, Madeline Miller, for making the world of Greek and Roman myth come alive in a very modern way.