Circe by Madeline Miller

Have you ever read a book that left you feeling completely stunned? It happens to me rarely, but when it does, I have this thing where I can’t do anything with my thoughts afterward. I can write about a good book, even a great one. I can write about a bad book, even a terrible one. But sometimes, a book completely knocks me out, and I can sit on it for days, weeks, even years without ever being able to articulate a damn thing about it. That’s what happened to me with Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles. You won’t find a review for it here, because I simply could not do it.

So, it was with excitement and strange terror that I returned to Miller once again for her highly anticipated and well-received follow-up, Circe. This one, like Song of Achilles, explores the life of one mythological character in great detail, imagining her life “behind the scenes” of the sparse details we get from classical storytelling. What Miller did so brilliantly in her first novel, exploring the more interesting elements of a well-known hero, Achilles and his lover, she does again here with Circe, who is treated to centuries’ worth of imagined biography.

I will say that I did not respond to Circe in the way that I responded to Song of Achilles. I’ve been wondering how much of this is simply biased, considering I am and was more interested in and more familiar with Achilles’s story in the first place. His story, and particularly told in the way Miller chose to tell it, through the eyes of his lover, is something I’ve always wanted to read. I wasn’t as familiar with the mythology of Circe, nor did her story draw me in as deeply or passionately. It’s an unfair comparison, perhaps, because I felt intimately connected to Song of Achilles, and not necessarily because the book was “better.” In fact, Miller here writes one of my favorite lines from any book I’ve ever read: “[T]here are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

Objectively speaking, though, I do think Achilles is a masterpiece, and that Circe is wonderfully well-done. The prose is not quite as interesting, this time, and the story does not move at the same pace. Indeed, because so much seems to happen in such a long period of historical time, but so shortly in narrative time, it sometimes feels oddly wind-swept and slightly disjointed, though never out of control. Miller knows what she is doing, and the story is powerful, interesting, and even joyful in its terrible sadness. The choice of Circe as protagonist is brilliant, too, because she is able to think and feel and interact with mortals in a way that Greek mythology does not allow of its gods, who are always (and to an extent must be) completely unconcerned with human needs, desires, pains, et cetera. (Rick Riordan has been playing with this, too, in his latest series re-imagining the god Apollo as a mortal teenager living in the contemporary era.)

To be fair, I find I’m still left spoiled by–wrecked by–Achilles. This might always be the case and, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that my experience with it must have, on some level, colored my reading of Circe. That said, Circe is a compelling novel whose reception is well-deserved and easy to understand. It’s also a particularly powerful statement in our time, as we confront head-on issues of gender and power. Miller crafts a flawed and sometimes ignorant hero whom I knew little about and for whom I struggled, at first, to champion; in the end, she convinces me.

Notable Quotes

“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.”

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

“I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer. Then, child, make another.”

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

15 Comments on “Circe by Madeline Miller

  1. I love anything related to mythology and I’ve also been eyeing this book for a while now! So glad you enjoyed it! Loved your review. I’m now even more excited to pick it up! And I agree that seeing characters like Circe as the protagonist is nice especially when written very well!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interestingly, I much preferred Circe to The Song of Achilles! There must be an extent to which familiarity with and interest in the source material affects how strongly a reader reacts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This book had a lot of great lines.I appreciated that Miller was able to write in a way that was not self-consciously archaic but also not annoyingly contemporary. I want to reread Song of Achilles now.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You write about The Song of Achilles the way I feel about it and could never articulate. It is an amazing book! I have read it 3 times–something I never do–and loved it every time. I liked Circe very much, but Achilles is the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My phone ate the comment I tried to leave yesterday, but now I’m back with my laptop, I’ll try again.

    I can now see why you have been first in to like my recent updates on goodreads 🙂
    The Song of Achilles is an incredible story with one of the most beautiful, tender young love scenes I’ve ever read between Achilles and Patroclus. I was concerned when we got to Trot, that it would be all battle scenes a la The Iliad, but thankfully, Miller kept to her aim to bring out the emotional behind-the-scenes journey of this well-known story.

    I’ve been fascinated by Circe ever since acquiring a poster of Waterhouse’s Circe Invidiosa (in the act of poisoning the water). This framed print has moved house so many times with me and each time she has found pride of place on a wall I plan to see/walk by every day. Even though there is a sinister story behind the picture, it’s the beautiful greens that attract me and move me every time. Miller’s Circe is definitely on my wishlist.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I know exactly how you feel, Adam, except it was the opposite for me: I was able to write about The Song of Achilles, but not Circe! I didn’t expect to enjoy either book as much as I did, but I was blown away by both. Let’s hope she releases another one soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I still need to read Song of Achilles, so maybe my connection to Circe is different because I did not read the one before the other? I feel about Circe the way you did Achilles. I knocked me out and left me speechless with wonder at what I think is its sheer perfection. In a year of fabulous books – the new John Boyne, Tayari Jones’ latest – Circe is the one that still fills me with goosebumps when I think of it.

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