Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

37134404Verdict: Beautifully written, but dull.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: fiction, myth retelling

Published by Bloomsbury, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and Perse, a beautiful naiad. Yet from the moment of her birth, she is an outsider in her father’s halls, where the laughter of gossiping gods resounds. Named after a hawk for her yellow eyes and strange voice, she is mocked by her siblings – until her beloved brother Aeëtes is born.

Yet after her sister Pasiphae marries King Midas of Crete, Aeëtes is whisked away to rule his own island. More isolated than ever, Circe, who has never been divine enough for her family, becomes increasingly drawn to mortals – and when she meets Glaucus, a handsome young fisherman, she is captivated. Yet gods mingle with humans, and meddle with fate, at their peril.

In Circe, Madeline Miller breathes life once more into the ancient world, with the story of an outcast who overcomes scorn and banishment to transform herself into a formidable witch. Unfolding on Circe’s wild, abundant island of Aiaia, where the hillsides are aromatic with herbs, this is a magical, intoxicating epic of family rivalry, power struggles, love and loss – and a celebration of female strength in a man’s world.

This book is, when considering the writing on a sentence-by-sentence perspective, incredibly beautiful. The language is wonderfully evocative and the imagery is stunning. But for me at least, beautiful writing is not enough to distract me from the fact that I found it dull. I am also having problems divorcing my experience of this book from the way it has been discussed in the book community and while this is not the book’s fault, it did influence my enjoyment. This book has been praised left and right as a feminist retelling of Circe’s life – a life that in mythology is at the periphery (both literally as she is living on her own, exiled on an island and figuratively as she is an antagonist without much agency). I am having trouble seeing that supposed feminist angle and it made me pretty cross while reading. I thought the book was much more the story of the men in Circe’s life than her own story. And I am fairly certain this was on purpose (something something role of women, something something limitation of expression) but for the life of me I cannot find a reason that makes this narrative choice palatable for me. To be clear: I am not blaming the book for this, I am sure this has more to do with who I am as a reader with pretty distinct tastes and preferences, but I struggled.

On the opposite spectrum of this, I found Circe most compelling when she was facing off with another woman (her sister or her grandmother or Medea or Penelope) – I wish the book had been populated with more women and less men, I would have enjoyed it more for it. As it stands, the ending did go a long way towards redeeming this book for me. If the middle hadn’t been as rambling and bland this could have worked better for me. Circe was not always an exciting narrator even if I have to grudgingly agree that her characterization makes sense but I wished for her to have more edges and to be allowed to be more unpleasant; she was the first witch after all. Her blandness was in the end my biggest problem with a book that took me ages to finish and left me wanting something else entirely.

Content warning: Rape, Caesarian sections (brutal ones!)

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (review)
  4. Normal People by Sally Rooney (review)
  5. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  6. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (review)
  7. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  8. Circe by Madeline Miller
  9. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (review)
  10. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  11. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
  12. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li (review)
  13. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

DNF:

  • Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
  • Ordinary People by Diana Evans

25 thoughts on “Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

  1. This is so interesting – how two people can have entirely different experiences with the same book. I agree that Circe was very soft and agreeable for someone who’s supposed to be the first witch, but it didn’t bother me really, I thought it was a unique story for a witch to not be the usual either super-evil or children’s-book-lovely-witch. She was too much of a person, too much of a human, to be a god, but too godly to be a simple human. I thought it was cool! But as said, I totally see your point.

    As for the story being about the men: that is so interesting, it was my exact complaint about Silence! I never got this impression with Circe, though. Could it be that it’s because I’m more familiar with the Odyssey and therefore those things were sort of background noise to me? Like, yes yes, this person does this, but what WILL CIRCE DO ABOUT IT???

    Maybe that is what Silence felt like for you??

    I love how much discussion the longlist creates.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is such an interesting point. For me the story that has my heart is the Trojan War and for me the emotional connection was already there and I found it super interesting how Barker played with my expectation to give me something different. I don’t know THAT much about Circe so maybe that lack of connection worked in the book’s disfavour. I also just really prefered Briseis as a character (I also listened to the audiobook for that and the narrator was brilliant). I thought Briseis was wonderful – and just flawed enough to work for me. I never warmed for Circe – I can intellectually see where Miller was going but her constant infatuation with horrible men didn’t quite work for me.

      And yes, the discussions are the best!

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  2. Ah this is such a good review and it was so interesting to read it, since my experience with Circe is limited to other people’s opinions for now (I haven’t read it before). I’ve heard people criticize The Silence of the Girls for shifting the focus too much to a male narrator, and then praise Circe in turn for not doing that, so it was really interesting to read how you had an opposite experience with the book. I am actually so excited to get to Circe so I can see where I stand with all of this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think my reaction had a lot to do with the comparison. I thought this one was a lot more focussed on every man Circe ever encountered and it really annoyed me – but it probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t loved Silence of the Girls that much. I am looking forward to your thoughts when you get to the book!

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  3. So I just started this book like, yesterday, but I want to address what you said about “why is it so much about the men if it is supposedly feminist”. I think the idea here is that the original Greek myths are ONLY about the men. Women are wives, seductresses, or witches, and that is pretty much it. Miller addresses that problem head on by making Circe acutely aware of how everything revolves around the men. Circe notices, and Circe does not approve. That’s just my interpretation so far, and I haven’t read all that much yet. But that’s what stood out to me personally as I was looking for the highly praised “feminist angle”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re probably right. But there are vast stretches in the middle where I thought Miller was less than successful with this. I have some super spoilery thoughts about the way the ending is framed – while I thought the ending was VERY well done, I have also been getting more and more annoyed with it since finishing the book.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I just finished it, and I LOVED the end. I think it was just right the way she ended things. But you’re right, that she absolutely could have done so without all of Circe’s happiness always depending on the men in her life.

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      2. I thought the ending was absolutely brilliant. Everything after Penelope’s arrival was wonderfully done. But yes, her happiness depending on men wasn’t my favourite thing. and I say that as somebody who very much likes men!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful review. I felt almost exactly the same, but had such a hard time articulating why I found this book unexciting, and different than what most people seem to be reading it as. The writing is indeed beautiful, but I didn’t find Circe surprising or challenging in any way that I could really engage with. Her lack of agency was very challenging for me, especially with so many readers touting the feminist angle.

    But in any case, I’m glad you made it through, and that you found the ending a bit of an improvement!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!
      I am glad to have read the book and I think I wouldn’t have been as annoyed if I hadn’t read it so soon after reading the (in my opinion vastly superior) Silence of the Girls. I just thought that Barker’s way of dealing with the lack of agency was a lot more interesting. And Briseis was just by far the more interesting characters, for me at least.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree that Silence of the Girls felt superior. I didn’t like everything about it, but I admired what it was able to do and thought that it was written quite brilliantly. I read Circe first, but Silence definitely seemed like a step up. Circe seemed exciting in concept, but the execution (though beautiful) didn’t pull off the level of intrigue I expected from its premise. Briseis was more compelling for me as well!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree, I’m a bit curious about the Regeneration trilogy what with one of the volumes winning the Man Booker, but I’m not sure I’m interested enough in war historical fiction right now to appreciate it. Perhaps some day in the future it’ll look more appealing.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t picked this one up yet because I’m kind of worried about being disappointed. Partly because of the hype and partly because I have no idea how anyone can followup a masterpiece like The Song of Achilles. But I loved hearing your thoughts on it, and I’m curious to see what I’ll think of the feminist element once I get to it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am definitely in the minority with this book. I think if I hadn’t read it pretty much at the same time as The Silence of the Girls (which I adored) I might not have struggled this much.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Agreed!! I definitely found the dullest parts of this book to be when it was more focused on the men- the whole section with Odysseus put me to sleep. But when Circe was facing off with her sister, or Penelope, and even Athena, I found that way more compelling and was just more interested in them as characters. I kind of fluctuated in my interest of Circe herself, but again, that probably had to do with the character she was interacting with at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh god, the section with Odysseus really was the worst part of the book. My main takeaway was definitely: more women, less men! (which can be said about most books tbf)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. That’s interesting that it’s beautifully written but dull. That’s a fear of the book i’m writing now – betas are saying beautifully written but deep down I am afraid it’s dull. I’m glad i found this review because it helps me better understand what readers expect. Awesome review!

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