It’s a little hard to be involved in any way in the book world and to not have heard of Madeline Miller. She really came into my radar as an author when I started to hear about the release of her second novel Circe earlier this year. Shortly afterwards I found out that she was being featured in a talk at the LA Times Book Festival. I hadn’t yet read her books but I knew she was a popular author with a rabid fan following, so I jumped at the chance to see her speak.
She opened the segment by reading a passage from Circe that absolutely blew me away for the power and strength of the writing (I’ve included the whole passage in my review below). It literally gave me goosebumps, and right away I knew I needed to read both her books. I’ve been recommending them (especially The Song Of Achilles) ever since and I’m officially a life long fan of her work. Read my full reviews of both of her novels below.
The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Publication Date: September 5th 2011
Published By: Bloomsbury Publishing
Length In Hardcover: 352 pages
Goodreads Rating: 4.30
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. By all rights their paths should never cross, but Achilles takes the shamed prince as his friend, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But then word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus journeys with Achilles to Troy, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
Timeless yet modern legend. What Miller attempted in this novel is no easy feat. To take an enduring story like that of the Iliad and find a way to retain its essence while making it new and accessible to a modern audience is an extremely hard ask. The mastery with which Miller was able to establish that balance between the mythical tone and language of the novel and the supremely relatable character of Patroclus is what makes the novel a modern classic. Mixed in with the feeling of a timeless legend told around a fire is the present-day sensibility that informs the themes of love, friendship and acceptance that are central to the novel.
The love story. I’m not one to cry much from reading a book. I might tear up at some especially moving passages, but I was pouring liquid from my eyes towards the end of this novel. I’m just saying you might want to wait to read the last third or so of the book until you’re somewhere private. The romance between Patroclus and Achilles is an unlikely one (what with Achilles being a demi god and Patroclus not exactly portrayed as the hero type), but their story was told in such a genuine and relatable way by Miller that you can’t help but fall for both of them and their love as well. There’s a purity to their bond that was so refreshing to get immersed in considering how rare it seems to be within the real world.
“This, I say. This and this. The way his hair looked in summer sun. His face when he ran. His eyes, solemn as an owl at lessons. This and this and this. So many moments of happiness, crowding forward.”
The writing. Oh yeah, and did I forget to mention that Miller’s writing is generally beautiful with frequent forays into breathtaking? I can’t believe this was her debut novel, although I did learn from her that she toiled away at it over ten years. The care put into Miller’s prose is obvious in every passage, and I especially enjoyed reading sections out loud (to my very appreciative rabbit). Her wording has heft and melody to it that does justice to the mythical nature of her story, sounding both fresh and ancient somehow at the same time.
“I could have told him more, of the dreams that left me bleary and bloodshot, the almost-screams that scraped my throat as I swallowed them down. The way the stars turned and turned through the night above my unsleeping eyes.”
Almost nothing. I always struggle to find something to say that I didn’t like in books I give five stars to because, clearly, I loved them. I think it’s an interesting exercise, however, to think about what could have make this book I loved reading even better. The best I can come up with when it comes to The Song Of Achilles is that a few of the supporting characters were one-dimensional and slightly caricatured – specifically Achille’s goddess mother (though she might have seemed caricatured just by the fact she’s not a mortal), and most of the kings that pop in and out of the story. I also felt that the book got just a tad slow right around the middle.
A transporting, exquisitely written, modernized retelling of the Illiad. Even if you didn’t love having to read the original in high school or college, you’ll fall for Patroclus and Achilles’ doomed but beautiful love story.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Publication Date: April 10th 2018
Published By: Little, Brown and Company
Length In Hardcover: 400 pages
Goodreads Rating: 4.37
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child–not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power–the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves. Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
Circe. I found the protagonist of the novel – Circe – pretty relatable for being a goddess. The book is really the story of her growth and transformation into someone who sheds the dullness and one-dimensional nature of the other immortal gods that make up her family. From the beginning of the novel, she’s set apart from them already, with a thirst for more meaning to her life implanted in her being from somewhere. Throughout the narrative, she discovers what is important to her and becomes an increasingly complex and in some ways ‘human’ individual, gaining warmth and also fallibility. Her portrayal connects to the strong theme of feminism in the book and I found her quite captivating.
“I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.”
The gods. It was very interesting to see Miller’s take on gods more fully fleshed out in Circe, because we really only get a hint of it through Achilles’ mother in her prior novel. Here, Miller takes us into their gilded living quarters, showing us the distinctive ways in which they don’t look like, act like or think like humans. She elaborates on the ideological rules and customs that govern their world, and it’s ultimately Circe’s disagreement with these rules and customs that leads her to separate more and more from her roots as a goddess. Miller also explores the significance of immortality for the gods, as Circe grapples with the prospect of spending eternity on her island. The island itself becomes a foil for the the arguably beautiful and yet inescapably limited nature of immortality.
“I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.”
The writing. Hearing a passage of Circe read aloud was what made me run to read Miller’s first novel – The Song Of Achilles – in the first place. I’m including this passage nearly in full below because it’s so good it gives me goosebumps every time I read it. I don’t think that the writing in Circe was consistently as strong as in The Song Of Achilles, but Circe was still beautifully written.
“After I changed a crew, I would watch them scrabbling and crying in the sty, falling over each other, stupid with their horror. They hated it all, their newly voluptuous flesh, their delicate split trotters, their swollen bellies dragging in the earth’s muck. It was humiliation, a debasement. They were sick with longing for their hands, those appendages men use to mitigate the world.
Come, I would say to them, it’s not that bad. You should appreciate a pig’s advantages. Mud-slick and swift, they are hard to catch. Low to the ground, they cannot easily be knocked over. They are not like dogs, they do not need your love. They can thrive anywhere, on anything, scraps and trash. They look witless and dull, which lulls their enemies, but they are clever. They will remember your face.
They never listened. The truth is, men make terrible pigs.”
Less complex. Even while Circe is a very well-executed novel in its own right, it comes second in my mind to The Song Of Achilles in complexity and completeness. In part, this is due to the different premises of the two novels. The story of Circe is clearly a much more self-contained one to elaborate on than that of the Iliad, with a single main character rather than two playing off of each other. Circe is also marooned on a single island for much of the novel, further circumscribing the plot to one locale. It may just come down to the fact that immortal lives are always less interesting than mortal ones due to the fact that mortal experiences are magnified by the threat of death.
A strong protagonist will make you rethink what you thought about the lives of Greek gods and goddesses, the nature of immortality and the capacity of a woman with a room (or island) of her own to remake herself.
Madeline Miller was born in Boston and grew up in New York City and Philadelphia. She attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in Classics. She has taught and tutored Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students for more than fifteen years.
The Song of Achilles, her first novel, was awarded the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a New York Times Bestseller. It has been translated into over twenty-five languages including Dutch, Mandarin, Japanese, Turkish, Arabic and Greek. Madeline was also shortlisted for the 2012 Stonewall Writer of the Year, and her essays have appeared in a number of publications including the Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Lapham’s Quarterly and NPR.org. Her second novel, Circe, was an instant number 1 New York Times bestseller. She currently lives outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Have you read either of Madeline Miller’s novels? What did you think of them? Do you agree with my ratings? Let me know in the comments.
If you want to read my previous Author Spotlights on Novels And Nonfiction you can find them here: Andy Weir, Eowyn Ivey, Liane Moriarty, Selina Siak Chin Yoke, Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett, Yuval Noah Harari.
Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository.