Circe, the daughter of Helios, the God of the Sun and Mightiest of Titans, is not a daughter fit for a god. Circe finds no love or friendship in the gods so she turns to mortal for comfort. With this, Circe discovers a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft. When love drives her to cast a dark spell she is banished to exile, will isolation lead to her demise or will it be the opportunity she needs to harness her power to its full potential?
Circe is Madeline Miller’s second book. It was a highly anticipated release after the monumental success of her first novel, Song of Achilles. She has also written a lesser known, however not less worthy, novella titled Galatea. Miller weaves ideas of femininity, female value, strength and empowerment, as well as concepts of family in Circe through this historical retelling which stills rings relevant in today’s society.
I think it is safe to say here at The Book Slut we champion the idea of an independent woman. I think that is why I was so drawn to this novel. My best friend sold it to me saying, it’s the perfect book for ‘independent woman vibes,’ which admittedly we all need to actively channel sometimes. But in the way of these said ‘vibes,’ I understand how she was so unapologetically herself and was projected as a woman who had no need for others, but like, that’s just a casual Wednesday for me? I didn’t feel like it was extremely special in this sense.
Admittedly, Circe is quite the power house in the sense that she does not let exile defeat her but instead lets it become her, I didn't find it as empowering as I would have liked. Circe’s quiet life in exile with her loom seems quite idealistic, like sign me up and bring me 10 mojitos, and she embraces that. But for me, she took on the persona of a woman scorned rather than a woman embracing her independence. Let’s just talk about how she got to be exiled, her witchcraft was revealed after she DISFIGURED ANOTHER WOMAN BECAUSE SHE WAS JEALOUS? Please tell me how the FUCK that has come to be represented as a feminism? I feel like this initial moment gets a bit lost. We are blinded by a story about a woman independently and powerfully living her life, we forget how she actually got there.
One element of the book I thoroughly enjoyed was how female sexuality is open and celebrated, and women unite as one in moments where they could have turned against one another. Do I think this is due to the fact that a woman wrote this book? Without a doubt, but I will still celebrate it. Circe is very strong-willed in her desires and she satisfies them wherever she deems worthy. It is clear that Hermes is—for lack of a better word—the token fuck boy of the novel. But proudly, Circe is also a fuck girl. They both reap the pleasures of a consensual relationship without the commitment, but they also know where they stand with one another. A woman has needs but a woman also has standards; Circe does not give in to Hermes’ every request but instead flaunts who she is as a woman and uses it as leverage against his undeniable charm.
A female character who I thought portrayed real female strength in the face of adversity was Penelope. She was Odysseus’ wife, who Circe knew about, and mother to Telemachus, first son of Odysseus’ and heir to his throne. Penelope remained warm-hearted and did not completely lash out at Circe or Telegonus when she learned what had happened and the betrayal she faced as a result of their presence and existence. Now this is what I call feminism, women supporting women. Ultimately, Circe bares a degree of blame as she was aware of Odysseus’ family at home, but it is not completely Circe’s fault and I think Penelope appropriately deals with that and moves on. Tell me this doesn’t sound like an appropriate course of action rather than permanent disfigurement?
In a similar vein, I must say, I commend the relationship between Circe and Penelope. Circe embraces Penelope when she thought she may threaten the peace she had cultivated and the safety of her son. Her maternal instincts are commendable and I find here she shows some restraint and rationale. Also, as I said, Penelope really goes in on the feminist vibes I was hoping for in these chapters. I thought the relationship between these two women quite special and highly refreshing to have women working together rather than against each other as a result of tumultuous events.
Can I understand why Circe is the kind of woman she is, ABSOLUTELY! She was never accepted by her family, abandoned by minimal companions, was left unloved, was raped, and faced a lot of trauma. Does this make her actions justifiable? Probably not. Fair enough, turn the men who raped you into pigs, that is completely justifiable and I think anyone would do the same. But, as I mentioned, her jealous outburst that got her exiled in the first place was childish. To me, Circe was irrational, hot-headed, and maliciously motivated. If I had known the nature of the story at the start would I have enjoyed it more? Absolutely.
I want to make clear that I definitely didn’t hate this book. But I didn’t feel as connected to it as many of my fellow readers have said I would. I was finding the actions of Circe more questionable than empowering. I was left fairly confused when all the love came from. I think the fact that I read it really quickly didn’t help and also my lack of knowledge about the original representations of her made it harder for me to grasp these widespread ideas. While I personally don’t think that this should be marketed as a powerhouse and inspiring read for women, I love the philosophy Miller holds regarding her motivation for writing these retellings: “She is interested in making classical myths more accessible to the public through her work of rewriting and re-envisioning stories like those of Circe and the Iliad. In particular, Miller strives to make mythology easier to understand and enjoy for students, in the hopes that they will then read the original classical works.”
Now please, don’t let my judgement deter you, but rather motivate you. Pick up the book, read it and make some judgements for yourself, who knows, we might agree, we might disagree. But ultimately I know that after this book, or any book, there will be another calling for us because aren’t we all just book sluts after all?
By Madeline Miller
352 pages. 2018.
Buy it here.