Circe has been topping a lot of people’s Best Of books this year and for good reason. It is a well written, interesting take on several well known Greek myths but doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of Greek mythology to enjoy (although Madeline Miller is obviously a Greek mythology fan girl).
Nymph-turned-witch Circe is the daughter of Helios; she is never meant to rule kingdoms because while she is immortal she is not a God. She finds happiness being a nanny to her siblings but after they grow up and fulfill their destinies Circe is back to being largely ignored. Circe eventually falls in love with a mortal fisherman and a jealousy fueled curse gets her banished to the island Aiaiai. Circe turns the lemons of her exile into a lemonade filled paradise where she befriends the animals on the island and continues to practice her witchcraft. Despite her banishment Circe is full of interesting characters that pass through the island during the centuries the story spans, including comic relief & gossip God Hermes as well as Odysseus whose arrival really alters the trajectory of the novel. Miller also interjects other Greek myths throughout the background like the Minotaur and Icarus.
“I had no right to claim him, I know it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”
I have vague recollections of Greek mythology thanks to a handful of high school assignments and the Disney film Hercules but the name Circe didn’t ring a bell for me when I first picked this one up. So my apologies to my AP English teacher because while I promise I read The Odyssey when you assigned it my junior year I couldn’t have named the witch who turned the men into pigs even if you paid me until that boat washed ashore Circe’s little island these fourteen years later. I liked how Miller handled the most historically well known aspect of Circe with this reimagined tale by making Circe less villainous in her own version of events while Odysseus was the hero in his own story.
“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 of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”