Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

I’m reminded that everyone’s lived the same childhood whenever I see those “Things Only 2000s Kids Will Understand” posts, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who went through a Greek and Roman Mythology phase in elementary school, especially thanks to a certain writer named Rick Riordan.

I picked up Circe both out of a nostalgia for mythology and because I’ve heard so many people rave over this book, and frankly, I think I should stop doing that. I’m finding that while a certain number of recommendations for a book pushes me to add it to my ever-growing TBR list, after a while, the more praise I hear about a book, the more I feel pressured to pick it up, to see its merits, to tear through it because it’s just so great. In that way, it took me longer than I’d hoped it would to read through Circe and at times, I felt as if I was forcing myself through the book. Even with this self-imposed burden, though, the story managed to be as great as others claimed it was.

To first get the groundwork out of the way: the language. True to the lyricism typically associated with ancient stories and myths, the delicate, intentional way Madeline Miller weaved the words and sentences and stories together was so evident. I expected the poeticism of it all to eventually feel pretentious, but it only helped let the story flow and constantly, even if unnoticeably, carry an air of wistfulness, melancholy.

See, throughout the book, Circe seemed to constantly long for something. The obvious answer is, perhaps, freedom, since after all, she was banished to an island to live eternity in solitude. But as the book went on, it became clearer that it was something beyond freedom, something more internal and complex. With this, you can probably expect that Circe made rash decisions at times, all with a tinge of immaturity in retrospect. Yet what was so interesting about the way Miller told the story of Circe was that since we got to see the world in Circe’s eyes, in the eyes of this witch portrayed as a traumatized villain in most tellings, in the moment, each and every one of her actions seemed so obviously justifiable.

We (typically) never make intentionally immature decisions, because in the moment we’re faced with a crossroads, we’re the wisest we’ve ever been. And with this innate tendency emulated in Circe, she became immediately recognizable as one of us, as human. Thus, as we were able to view her turning men into pigs and concoction of potions in a new lens, the story became Miller’s subtle commentary warning against tunnel vision–even if we were reading the story solely through one perspective.

Of course, as we all do, Circe, too, had many moments in which she looked back and realized her blind-sightedness, her foolishness. Her foolishness was ours, too, though, because hadn’t we also listened to Odysseus’ stories in awe just as she had? Hadn’t we also never stepped back to realize that honorable heroism was really just cold practicality?

Yet, who constantly lives with hindsight? To me, the most refreshing part about this book was that it was technically all written in retrospect. Circe is the older, much wiser version of herself as she tells these tales of the people she’s met and mistakes she’s made, and the fact that we’re still able to understand her actions and embrace her flaws speaks volumes. It suggests that ultimately, Circe stands by who she once was for it shaped who she became and who she may become.

I’ll admit I didn’t enjoy every aspect of the book. As I mentioned before, there were times I had to force myself to keep reading. This, I realize, wasn’t only due to the praise the book had already received, but simply because there were moments when the story felt slow, when the prose felt excessive and almost purple, when there was a looming sense of an inevitable end to the heartwarming plotlines.

Yet, I do understand the popularity of the book now. Perhaps only magnified by my imperfect experience in reading this book, the story was so touching because through it all, it was undoubtedly Circe’s and Circe’s alone, and in that way, so achingly human, too. Stories we’ve heard countless times before–such as that of Icarus–were almost glossed over, not to minimize their import, but to highlight Circe’s age and timelessness, to serve her purpose and no other legend’s. Perhaps the glorification of a single being is the most immortal-Greek-myth thing you can do, yet this book reminds us that it’s just as much, if not more so, a thing we do as mortals, imperfect as we are. In this way, Circe certainly lived up to its title, while also being the most human telling of a goddess there perhaps ever was.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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.

Miller, Circe

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

  1. As you said, this book has gotten so much attention and yet, I think yours is the first review I’ve read. It’s on my list and I do get what you are saying about how hype can pressure you to find enjoyment, etc. I am often let down by overly hyped books. They rarely live up to the praise, IMO.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it’s such a dilemma because I wouldn’t have known about the book without the hype, yet the hype is what sets my expectations so unrealistically high


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