Circe by Madeline Miller Could Have Been Captivating, but it Wasn't
Trigger Warning: torture, sexual abuse, death
You know that feeling, when minutes stretch on into hours and hours into days, until, by the end of the day, you’re left wondering, “Did that happen just this morning?”
Every day seems like a month and by the end of the actual month, you look back and it feels like a millennium has passed you by.
You know, the same thing so many of us have been experiencing EVERY DAY since the whole corona thing began…
Imagine that, but for ACTUAL millennia.
The pandemic has only been around for about nine months and we’re already feeling the strain acutely. What if it lasted for years and years, though, with no end in sight?
Imagine the isolation (literal isolation; no technology or people) lasting for centuries together, with the occasional company of people you hate and the even rarer company of people you end up liking.
Even if you’re a powerful witch and you’re isolated in the most beautiful island with glittering blue waters and exotic herbs to hone your witchcraft, I suspect you would abhor such a life.
A year alone in an island to learn witchcraft? I’d do it in a heartbeat. Two years? A stretch, but sure, why not? Five? A little too long, but okay. But ten years? Hundred? A thousand? Unimaginable.
Yet, this was the life Circe lived.
And Circe by Madeline Miller is her story.
Sounds heart-breaking and captivating, doesn’t it?
Well, it could have been.
Except, the author makes us feel every minute of all those millennia in the book. It’s probably deliberate, this pace…and maybe it’s to the credit of Madeline Miller that she’s made us feel the millennia of isolation that Circe endured…but that doesn’t mean I had to like it!
I waited and waited for some action to happen, and to the book’s credit, there was action (Daedalus arrived, people got turned into pigs, Odysseus arrived, etc). But the story was so slow-paced that even then, it still felt like nothing was happening.
This wasn’t the only reason I didn’t quite like the book, though. There were a few more.
There were some good things, too…I don’t think I would have finished reading the book otherwise!
Before I get into it,
Circe, the most disliked daughter of the sun-god, Helios, is bullied throughout her childhood for her human-like voice and her not-horrible nature. Finally, she realises that while she doesn't have her mother's looks or her father's powers, she's not powerless. No. She's a witch.
Of course, witches are not really liked or anything, so Circe is exiled in Aiaia, a beautiful but remote island, to live in isolation, where she hones her witchy powers and befriends lots of animals.
Obviously, she can't be left alone for so long that there's no story at all, so people visit her. Things happen, horrible men get turned into pigs, somewhat decent men get laid, and then more things get happen.
Circe is a tale of loss, love and family rivalry, but mostly, it is a tale about Circe, the naive woman who remains oblivious to the ways of the world even when she's thousand years old.
Now, on to the good stuff:
The writing – While it wasn’t lyrical or mesmerising or anything, I do think Circe was extremely well-written. The author has, I think, managed to capture that old-world language and the voice of Circe as she imagined the witch, perfectly. Also, again, I believe that making us experience the millennia of Circe’s loneliness was something the author wanted to do, so kudos to her for achieving that!
The character development – Every character, be it the few gods who have a minor role in the scheme of Circe’s life or the humans who have an equally small role, or Circe herself, Miller has given every single one of them great depth. Making so many people three-dimensional must have taken a lot of effort, and I appreciate that. Also, the characters with larger roles in the book are all nuanced and complex, and I love it when people (beings?) are shown as complex. Whether I liked the characters or not is another story altogether (read the “not-so-good” for that!) but I love that they all had depth.
Circe’s growth – It takes a while for Circe to stop being naïve and frankly quite spineless (more on that later), but once she grows into herself, she’s great! I would have liked it more if we had seen more of her confident, badass self, though – the badass Circe was present for too short a while!
The ending – No spoilers, promise! That said, the ending is undoubtedly hopeful and, dare I say it – happy, even. However, while a great ending (which this was) is often enough to lift up an entire book in my eyes (The Silent Patient is a prime example), it wasn’t enough in this one, at least for me. But more on that later.
It was about Circe – I’ve seen Greek mythological retellings about several main players in the myths, but Circe is not one of them. So the fact that it was about Circe is, in itself, a plus for me.
Circe – Yeah, I didn’t like Circe’s character. She’s so badass in the original myths! She’s that person (being?) who says, “F*** you!” to everyone and lives life on her terms. Not so in this book. Here, she’s portrayed as this sad, naïve person who’s only disliked because she’s kind where every other immortal is callous, and because she has a human voice. I would have honestly preferred a flawed character with a mean streak to this insipid version of Circe. I mean, sure, she turns men into pigs in the book, but that’s about it. She makes the same mistakes every time – trusts all the wrong people, falls for random men, etc. etc. I didn’t like her that much.
Everyone else – While Circe deserved a whole paragraph, what I can say about everyone else is that I liked no one! There was literally no character to root for. Everyone was flawed and complex, yes – the problem is, they were too flawed. None of the gods was given any redeeming qualities (sure, they were selfish and moody in the Percy Jackson books, but they were at least fun!) and most of the humans were horrible people as well. When everyone in a story is bad bad bad with zero redeeming qualities, it’s hard to like the story.
The pace – As I said in the first half of this review, the slow pace was, perhaps, the worst thing about the book. If it was faster, or if there was some action, I might have still liked it, unlikeable characters and all! As my friend Sujani (whom I buddy-read the book with) said, mythology has to be fun and engaging, even if it’s dark and heartbreaking at the same time.
Circe’s affairs – Circe hooks up with many men during her long, long life. That makes sense, of course – a woman has needs, after all! I’ve wanted to read a book in which the main character has several affairs or romances, and in theory, the fact that Circe sleeps with a lot of men is a great thing. Not in practice, though. For me, in a fantasy book with a larger purpose, each romance needs to have a point, too – even if that point is only, “I was horny.” If they don’t have that kind of point, at least the person should learn something from them! But in this book, none of Circe’s affairs (bar one, maybe) make any sense! She learns nothing from them and ends up falling for the same kinds of people again and again. And again. Sad.
That’s about it, I guess…except, yeah one more thing. Every character I “met” in the book, I couldn’t help but compare them to those described in the Percy Jackson books. And I couldn’t help but think, “Well, the PJO characters were better!” As for Odysseus, Athena and a few others, I compared them with the ones I knew from the Goddess Summoning series by P.C. Cast, a set of romantic modern-day retellings of Greek mythology – I liked those people way better!
I don’t know whom to recommend this book to. I found it boring, but I know that it’s an immensely popular book. So, I’ll say that while I didn’t like it, I know a few people who did. Check out their (positive) Instagram reviews (linked below) for a more balanced view:
My friend, Kristine (@thebookishdentist on Instagram) loved the book.
Another good friend, Prerna (@preadsbooks on Instagram) is all praises for it!
I suggest you read those reviews as well, before deciding whether to read the book or not. As for me, well, you already know what I think…
About the Author
Madeline Miller was born in 1978 in Boston and grew up in New York City and Philadelphia. She attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in Classics. She then went on to teach Greek, Latin and Shakespeare to high school students. She also studied for a year at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and at the Dramaturgy department of the Yale School of Drama, where she focused on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms.
She started writing The Song of Achilles, her debut novel which has won several awards, while she worked as a teacher, and she took ten years to complete it. She’s written two books so far – The Song of Achilles and Circe, each of which have earned her several accolades.
In an interview, she said that she was inspired by a lot of books, poetry and authors, including David Mitchell, Lorrie Moore, Anne Carson and Virgil. Fun fact: As a child, she wanted to be a veterinarian, and then a therapist. She finally ended up as a teacher and a writer, and she loves both careers. She would also like to continue pursuing her interest in theatre and one day direct Shakespeare plays with high school students.