Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

Happy 2019! Wow has it been a busy year for me. I didn’t get to read as much as I would’ve liked, but I did get to visit lots of cool bookstores, including the Strand when I stayed in New York for two weeks!

*Please note: This blog post was written a while ago. My thoughts, opinions, and writing skills have changed since then. Any posts written before 2020 should be assumed to not fully reflect my current thoughts, opinions, and writing capabilities unless otherwise stated. If you would like clarification on my thoughts/opinions about any specific points mentioned in this post, feel free to reach out to me.*

Happy 2019! Wow has it been a busy year for me. I didn’t get to read as much as I would’ve liked, but I did get to visit lots of cool bookstores, including the Strand when I stayed in New York for two weeks! I’m super optimistic about this upcoming year, and I’ve again set my goals for 50 books. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it, but I can certainly try. And I’m already on track, because I’ve read my first book of 2019: Circe, by Madeline Miller!

Goodreads summary:

“In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.”

[SPOILERS Ahead]

Rating/Review:

5/5

I fell in love with Greek mythology back in elementary school, when I read Oh My Gods! by Megan E Bryant and proceeded to check out all the books on Greek mythology at my public library. After I knew all the myths from reading them so many times in so many books, I moved on to mythological fiction (I don’t know the actual name for the genre, so I’m calling it that). I read Pegasus and the Flame of Olympus by Kate O’Hearn, which was Roman mythology; I read the Pandora series by Carolyn Hennesy; I read the Goddess Girls series by Joan Holub. My obsession with Greek mythology dwindled after my fifth grade teacher read Percy Jackson to us, which I hated (and I may be the only one who does). While everyone else around me seemed to be hopping on the mythology train, I felt that I had already explored all there was to explore within the genre, but that phase left me with a lasting appreciation for it. 

When I first heard about this book, I was instantly interested because in all that time I spent reading mythology, I’d never encountered one that featured Circe as its main character. Her part in The Odyssey was actually one of the most intriguing to me, because even though she turned the men into pigs she had let them stay on her island. I always wondered: was it because Odysseus had tricked her, or was it her own will? Was she a good guy or a bad guy? I loved the concept of a book that actually explored her backstory.

Circe is so masterfully written. The fact that it spans millennia but thoroughly explores each part of Circe’s life, and is able to tie in all different myths is amazing. Even further than that, Miller was able to make those myths matter and have a significance in Circe’s story. These myths themselves have existed for so long, and the idea that the book was able to add to them and give a new viewpoint is amazing.

I also just really loved the themes that the story explored. It’s heartbreaking to read about the loneliness Circe experienced her entire life. She grew up as the eldest and least-liked sister, trying to win favor from her father but constantly being rejected by her family. She raises her younger brother, Aeëtes, but he abandons her when he grows up and looks down on her. She meets and falls in love with a mortal, but even after she changes him into a god she is rejected by him. She discovers she is a witch and can defy the rules of divinity, and yet she is exiled to her own island. She has a son but he wants to leave, and she knows he will die in only a short interval of her life. Daedalus, Hermes, Medea and Jason, even Odysseus, only take up tiny moments of her eternal existence.

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

But Circe triumphs over her isolation. When she was surrounded by people, she yearned for their approval and love but never got it. She sought attention and validation. When she is finally alone, she suffers from the fact that she has to live eternity by herself. However, by the end of the novel, she is able to overcome this and claim herself. She is able to build her own story from her own strength, and I loved reading about her overcoming those obstacles.

When Circe was able to get Trygon’s tail, I felt so happy and proud of her because she had the willpower to do what no one else could, from love for her son. What it showed was that she was able to get past the selfishness of wanting approval and was doing things for other people. When Circe had transformed Glaucos, it was so she could have love. But when she got Trygon’s tail, it was so her son could live. It was such a huge leap of personal growth for her.

“You would have touched the poison. That is enough…I am old as the world, and make the conditions that please me. You are the first to meet them.”

Finally, I was so happy that Circe could finally get her happy ending. Immortal life may sound like a blessing, but Circe showed how much of a suffocating trap that could be. 

“And so it would go, I thought, on and on, forever the same. It did not matter if Penelope and Telemachus were kind. It did not matter even if they stayed for their whole lives, if she were the friend I had yearned for and he were something else, it would only be a blink. They would wither, and I would burn their bodies and watch my memories of them yellow and fade as everything faded in the endless wash of centuries, even Daedalus, even the blood-spatter of the Minotaur, even Scylla’s appetites. Even Telegonus. Sixty, seventy years, a mortal might have. Then he would leave for the underworld, where I could never go, for gods are the opposite of death…For me, there was nothing. I would go on through the countless millennia, while everyone I met ran through my fingers and I was left with only those who were like me.”

The whole ending is a story of success. Circe is finally able to admit fully how badly her father had treated her, and was able to let go of the idea she had of him.

“Because I have been your bargaining piece all along. Because you would have seen those men and known what they were and still you let them land on my island. Because after, when I was a broken thing, you did not come.”

And when Circe told him,

“I will do as I please, and when you count your children, leave me out,”

I was silently cheering her on as loud as I could.

Usually, when books end vaguely, I hate it because it is unsatisfying. But here, I didn’t need to know what happened after Circe drank. Because we already know, in the ordinary life she described.

“Of course my flesh reaches for the earth. That is where it belongs. One day, Hermes will lead me down to the halls of the dead. We will scarcely recognize each other, for I will be white-haired, and he will be wrapped in his mystery as Leader of Souls, the only time he is solemn. I think I will enjoy seeing that. I know how lucky I am, stupid with luck, crammed with it, stumbling drunk. I wake sometimes in the dark terrified by my life’s precariousness.”

The remarkableness of her accomplishment in defying divinity and becoming mortal is in its unremarkable-ness. That is what she wants, to lead a normal life, to die, to go back to the earth, to have lived and lived fully. Not in anything significant or divine but in the simple pleasures of having a thread of life that ends.
“Circe, he says, it will be all right…He does not mean that it does not hurt. He does not mean that we are not frightened. Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.”

Merry Readings,

April

Author: april | lostinthebookstacks

hello! i'm april (she/her), an asian american reader who’s passionate about words and scallion pancakes.

2 thoughts on “Review: Circe by Madeline Miller”

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