Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

Circe is Miller’s second novel and like the first it is a retelling of Greek mythology, this time focusing upon Circe, a relatively minor character in the tale of Odysseus. A complex background and motivations are created for the character in this retelling as we see her exiled to the island of Aiaia and face the wrath of both mortal and immortal men alike. In consequence, the novel is an extremely character driven one in which Miller successfully explores key issues such as lineage and the consequences of breaking away from it, power, love, family, boundaries and treatment of women. This exploration is expressed through beautiful prose, making for an all- round brilliant read!

Miller characterizes Circe brilliantly, creating a strong female lead that is utterly realistic. This is a character that is flawed yet relatable, which allows for the reader to connect with her almost immediately without her ending up a character which is unrecognizable in relation to her original portrayal. Rather than completely restructuring this character as a means of making her more moral, Miller takes the opposite approach. We still see Circe act in the terrible ways she did in the Odyssey, but we are also provided with her motivations and are allowed an insight into the awful ways in which she has been treated. Having this insight allows the reader to empathize with the character as she goes on her journey of healing and self- acceptance in a world that seems to want nothing more than to shun and take advantage of her.

Key to this characterization is the topic of feminism. Miller’s very decision to write a novel with Circe as the central character can be traced back to an idea that underpins the whole narrative; men will almost always have the advantage and the power, and stories of heroes are more common than those of heroines. Though Circe is not strictly a heroine, the focus upon her story remains important nonetheless since in the original tale she was diminished to nothing more than a woman that committed evil acts with no motivation. Miller establishes that the opposite of this portrayal is true in making Circe the only character to show Prometheus decency when on trial, effectively reflecting that women’s stories should be listened to as opposed to being glossed over in favor of those of men.

Through the story we see Circe consistently belittled and bullied throughout her entire life. She endures a lot of pain that perhaps wouldn’t have been inflicted were she a man, but what is important is that she does just that. She endures. This is a character that endures and gives an important lesson in how to live sufficiently and freely and full of self- acceptance at a time where this is not necessarily the norm. She manages to grasp freedom despite her troubled past, sets boundaries that she deems fit, and takes control of her destiny through her creation of a chosen family as opposed to clinging to her blood family. This makes for a truly admirable (albeit morally grey) character that reflects Miller’s talent as an author.

Family and lineage are also important to Circe’s story. At the beginning of the novel we see her family make her an outcast, establishing feelings of loneliness and isolation that she struggles with throughout the rest of the novel. It is this treatment from her own family that leads her to seeking companionship with mortals, therefore linking the central ideas of chosen family v. blood relatives and God v. mortal. With her human voice Circe is considered by the Gods to be a lesser Goddess, but to the reader this also allows her to become a kind of bridge between God and mortal. In her decision to form her novel in this way, Miller abolishes the idea that blood is worth more than the love that can be felt in a chosen family, an important message thats realization in Circe allows her to grow and come closer to achieving self- love.

The aforementioned self- love and familial love that is achieved is not the only love that is important in this novel. The romance between Circe and her love interest is integrated into the story perfectly, and it in no way interrupts the narrative and other themes being explored. Not only this, but the love interest wasn’t perfect, his flaws allowing for Miller to create a completely realistic romance that reflect her talents in creating relationships that the readership truly care about.

Finally, Miller’s prose was truly mesmerizing. It was thick with rich description and detail which only enhanced the beauty in the story itself. The writing is so beautiful that I have decided to end this review with my favorite quotes from the book, as no description of her prose could ever do it justice!

 

“I had been old and stern for so long, carved with regrets and years like a monolith. But that was only a shape I had been poured into. I did not have to keep it.”

“In solitary life, there are moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation he was to me.”

“I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.”

“That is one thing gods and mortals share. When we are young, we think ourselves the first to have each feeling in the world.”

“But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.”

“He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.”

“I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.”

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller”

  1. I love the quotes that you picked out to share in your review! You mention some great points, from the characterisation to the self-love. Ultimately the writing is what makes Circe truly special, I still remember the way it made me feel a year after reading it. Brilliant review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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