This review was written by Hannah Kiger, JCPL’s Marketing Specialist.
I’ll start with a confession: I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read any Greek tragedies, and I don’t have more than a shallow knowledge of Greek mythology. Not having that background knowledge, I was skeptical about how much I would enjoy or even understand Madeline Miller’s Circe, which is a re-imagination of the Greek goddess, Circe’s life, told from Circe’s own perspective. But, from the opening sentence, I was hooked.
Circe starts the tale of her life saying, “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Circe goes on to narrate her life through this lens; she is defined by her yearning to belong, to feel understood and accepted. Throughout growing up in her father’s (the sun god, Helios’s) house, to her exile and adventures on the island Aiaia, to her famous affair with Odysseus, Circe is intimately aware that she is alone, that she is set apart.
In allowing Circe to tell her own story, Miller creates a picture of a complex girl aching for connection, who never really fit with her family or the gods in general. Circe is fascinated by humans, but as a goddess she doesn’t fit with them either. Growing up lonely and ridiculed by everyone she knows, Circe cultivates an independent, rebellious, no-nonsense streak that eventually lands her in exile on a deserted island. But as time passes, the reader watches as Circe’s ongoing isolation, punctuated by brief periods with wayward travelers and visiting gods, changes and develops her. She becomes both stronger and more vulnerable, both confident and more humble. Throughout her eternity in exile, Circe learns what the gods in all their pomp and pettiness never will: how to love, how to let go, how to sacrifice.
Whether or not you have read or enjoy Greek mythology, I think this book is a must-read. While I’m sure there are layers in this story I missed because of my limited understanding, having little knowledge of Greek mythology didn’t hinder the story. Encountering mythological figures like Prometheus, Athena, Hermes, and Odysseus for the first time through Circe’s eyes made them seem even more alive and dynamic. And in Circe, Miller paints a very human portrait of an uncomfortable goddess, a woman who stands between the divine and human worlds, and ultimately finds a way to belong in that in-between space. Having spent some time with these dynamic and flawed characters, I’m excited to go back to their beginnings, and start reading the classics.