Madeline Miller’s ‘Circe’ is another one of the books I picked up and read because of the sheer amount of reviews on bookstagram and goodreads. Most of these reviews were quite positive, citing Miller’s vast knowledge of the Greek mythology and the approach that allowed Circe, who very often was only mentioned in passing in the Odyssey a new life and a story in her own right. While I agree that this was a noble pursuit and idea, I was quite underwhelmed by ‘Circe’ as a book and her as a character.
I am not sure if I should tag this as spoiler warning, as the basis for this novel are Greek myths, which are like ancient, so I cannot really spoil them for you.
The title character, Circe, is a daughter of titan Helios and a nymph Perse and at the start of the novel, Circe is shunned and humiliated at her father’s court. After it was discovered that she, like her siblings, has magical powers and her talking back to her father, Circe is banished to an island, that she, in time and with her powers, makes a home. The novel is written in first person narration, by Circe and I can say it was successful from a technical point of view. Miller is a skillful author and I truly enjoyed her narration and storytelling. She did keep me engaged in the novel and I did feel connected to Circe and her journey.
Circe is an interesting character for me. Previously, like many others, I thought of her as cruel and unrelenting sorcerer, one that turns men into pigs because she can. However, Miller’s Circe is quite different from that. After the humiliation she suffered almost daily by the hands of her own family, she is able to start new by herself. Still, despite the fact that she is that powerful, I never got the impression that she was cruel to anyone, even helping those who came to her with good intentions. Additionally, Miller also weaves the narrative that the reason she turned all those men into pigs is because that is what they truly are, as they all tried to rape her after she gave opened her door to them, which is not something I have really heard about before. Her character progression from a little quiet girl to the strong woman who is able to fight against gods and titans including Athena and Helios, as well as members of her own family, was quite powerful and Circe is definitely a good choice for this kind of story. Contrary to her usual characterization as a seductress, here she is presented as a woman working through her trauma and finding her power.
On the other hand, I did not really care about other characters around her. I know this is inspired by Greek mythology and that almost all myths are intertwined, but there were so many of them that at times, I struggled to keep up with all of them. To be completely honest, I did not care about most of them. That being said, I did enjoy that Circe was very sexually liberated, sleeping with who and when she wanted, both gods and mortals. It was quite refreshing to see a female characters being given this liberty, without others judging it. I guess being banished does come with some perks after all. That being said, I did not like how much of Circe’s story was dedicated to men that so much was already written about. After a while, I could not read page after page of Circe describing Odyssey or Daedalus or Telemach. For a story that is heavily advertised as feminist retelling of the story of Circe, I did not think that so much time being dedicated to heroes whose stories we have already heard. A lot of other female characters in the novel are not given the same grace and are often antagonists, if they even have a name, and not just somebody Circe dismissed. The only woman Circe developed some kind of positive relationship with is Penelope, on the basis that they have sons by the same father, who are being targeted by Athena. This was also very underwhelming, and when I saw that Penelope and Telemach came to her island, I expected more. At the end, Circe giving up her immortality to live a normal life of a mortal did not sit too well with me, as it first came across like she did it because of a man. However, after thinking about it for a bit, it felt more like after an eternity of people coming and leaving her immortal life, this is the decision she made for herself.
Still, my biggest criticism is that if you are familiar with original Greek myths surrounding Circe, this will not be a very interesting book for you. Miller did not re imagine or taken inspiration from Greek mythology, but rather retold it from a different perspective. As I said, this did give rise to a new kind of Circe, one that is not simply a blood and sex thirsty witch, but a complex character. But, it also meant that there is not that much new in terms of storytelling and deeper meanings of the elements of the story. I did enjoy reading it and if you want to learn more about Greek myths, I do think you would enjoy it.
I scored this book 3/5 on goodreads. It was enjoyable and Miller’s storytelling was overall good. However, I felt like there were so many missed opportunities that I simply cannot get over. What did you think about the book? Can you recommend any similar books to me? If I missed anything in my review, let me know in the comments below.