Reviewed by Margot Pelletier
Madeline Miller’s Circe is a gorgeous exploration of the human condition as studied by a distinctly nonhuman protagonist. At the heart of this saga is the titular character, an unexceptional nymph turned powerful witch, and the narrative arc is one of personal development and supposed female empowerment. Circe’s life before and after her exile to the island of Aeaea is explored at a languid pace in this beautiful reimagining of Greek mythology.
The language and lyricism of this tale are exemplary. The prose is lush and poetic, the similes striking and vivid. Circe is literary fiction at its best, and Miller’s talent is stunning. This is rich text meant to be savored and recited aloud, and for that aspect alone it is well worth the read. The pace of the story is one that echoes the Homeric epics, and though the tale lagged in places, the main stylistic issue is the number of subplots recounted in a secondhand retelling. Instead of an active narrative, the reader is given a plethora of characters who recount other characters’ adventures. Though Circe’s story is the heart of the tale, a number of Greek myths play out in the background of the story.
Circe as a character is complex and nuanced, insightful and clever. The powerful enchantress who populates the classic myths is still present here, fully fleshed, morally ambiguous, and utterly humane. She is caught between two worlds, that of humans and that of the gods. Her astute observations of both provide a pointed glimpse into what it means to be human, in all of our fallacies and weaknesses.
At heart, Miller’s reimagining of Circe is a bittersweet, poignant observation of what it is to be a woman. The author has done a superb job of bringing an ancient world to life and giving it relevancy to this modern era. This story is both an ode to the Greek classics and a pointed feminist criticism of the old poets. “Humbling women seems to be a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.” This work could have been a brilliant feminist masterpiece. It could have been a lyrical, erudite rebuttal of the old poets’ vilification of a complex woman, and it could have been a message of empowerment. It succeeds on the first point with a vanquished witch given a heroine’s sage. But it fails in the second point, because Circe’s feeling of fulfillment in her long, long life hinges on men. The message I come away with is not that this woman is a force to be reckoned with but that she wanted and needed to be loved by a man. Men are the linchpin of Circe’s existence, and her choice in the end left me dissatisfied. As a feminist masterpiece, this falls short, but it is a gorgeously rendered tale of the sharp, painful facets of womanhood.
Rich with meaning and feeling, Madeline Miller’s Circe is a compelling reinterpretation of mythology. The author’s talent lends a fresh, brilliant voice to the classics. This is an intricate character drama, a sweeping female saga, and an exploration of what it is to love.
Recommended for those who enjoy mythology, reimagined classics, literary fiction, and stories that explore the nuances of being a woman