Book Review

Book Spotlight: Circe by Madeline Miller

Synopsis in under 100: Circe is unsung daughter of Helios. Scratch that – she’s not the “unsung” daughter, she’s blatantly despised. She thinks and emotes differently from the immortal beings around her, and it causes nothing but trouble. The price of this villainy? Banishment, of course. If you know your Greek mythology, you’ll have an understanding of what’s expected for Circe, but now we’re hearing it from the witch’s perspective for the first time. This is a coming of self story centering on female empowerment.

Review: This novel isn’t just about some love-crazed goddess who wants to belong (although, that is a large factor I will not deny). The novel centers on a woman who learns comfortability with and strength in herself – through the stillness of her home, the disappointing familial relationships, the violence and manipulation brought on by others. She recognizes the unadulterated goodness in herself and continues to spread that sweetness, despite the world imposed onto her. Through the magic she weaves and the lot granted by the Fates, she not only endures, she thrives. To have an unlimited potential over the natural world, she finds peace in its simple serenity. Circe isn’t just a witch or goddess, but a balanced yogi guru of nirvana – her own nirvana. If that’s not life goals, I don’t know what is.

I enjoy Greek mythology more than any other Pantheon because it’s so… broken. The immortals are not the omni-gods they market themselves to be, but spend all their time trying to convince all other living beings of their power. There is no wholly benevolent Olympian, and Circe exploits that that to the ugliest extent.

As a character, she not only recognizes the manipulative, malicious characters around her, she discovers how to shield herself from their influence and become her own person. In truth, it’s because she’s not an evil character that she’s cast out. Homer describes Circe and Calypso very similarly – both deceitful women with the only drive to keep Odysseus on her island. Miller offers a refreshing perspective into Circe and dammit, a woman written by a woman just makes more sense. The cognitive explanations and the motives expressed by Circe are deep, meaningful, and come from a place of recognition. Miller transforms Circe into a three-dimensional, relatable character with delicious imagery and language. The writing is descriptive in its simplicity, complex and refined, like Circe herself. I was completely captivated through Miller’s narrative and never wanted to put the novel down! When all is said and read, at the very least I give thanks to Miller for bringing depth to such an interesting, neglected character from Greek mythology in such a beautiful, delightful way.

There is a sexual assault that is a pivotal point in Circe’s character. I tend to detest this in a plot, as a character’s entire development relies on an act of violence and an act outside of their control. All too often for female characters rape is somehow their defining moment – something that detracts their autonomy, steam rolls over their emotional and physical wellbeing, and lays waste to all their intended plans. It’s not usually an attractive subject in general, but being a woman with certain life experiences, it can be re-traumatizing. Fortunately, Miller recognized this and did not dwell or put too much importance on this happening – the chapter is swift and does not focus on the act itself but the inner monologue of Circe.

I identified with Circe in such a way that I was able to glean strength from her restructuring of self. She did not lose herself, she did not give up on her plans, she did not transform into a completely different person after the event. She dealt with the occurrence and restructured. Circe showed pure growth in a condensed time frame (assault can do that), she did not completely upend her natural characteristics. Altogether, brilliant and reassuring.

Circe haunted me for several months, as often books will do. It was a best seller for weeks, shortlisted for several awards, and is always displayed full-face on the bookshelves in the store. Needless to say, I became accustomed to seeing the cover every time I entered a bookstore. It haunted me. With the shutdown, I was looking for something apart from my normal reads. The haunting quickly turned into an obsession. Circe, this lone woman quarantined on an island with not more than her big cats, resonated with my current and past living experience. So intricately and ironically woven together, only a mad genius such as Daedalus could contrive. I genuinely believe this novel came to me at the right time. If I’d read it any earlier, I doubt Circe would have resonated as strongly with me as it did.

I enjoyed Miller’s writing style so much, I wandered around the house, goodreads,, Barnes&, etc., etc. looking for something to follow up this read. Lost, ya’ll, I was LOST. I quickly gave up and moved on to Miller’s “Galatea.” I can truthfully say the short story brought me down a little from the Circe high. I also recommend this essay.

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