This Valentine’s day, lovingly give yourself the gift of Madeline Miller’s 2018 novel ‘Circe’ and learn about romance from the immortal sorceress who had her eternal share of relationship difficulties and triumphs. Circe is the daughter of the Sun, Helios, and the nymph Perse, however despite her formidable parentage she is not as powerful as her father, as stunningly beautiful as her mother, or as loved, respected, and feared as her siblings. Circe’s most valuable traits, by which I mean the qualities which serve her best throughout her centuries, are her unique admiration and respect for mortals and their daily toil, and her undeniable conscience. She encounters the inevitable betrayals and rejections we all must. She goes back, time after time, to the sly but charming god who does not deserve her; she falls in love with a brilliant man who is devoted to someone else; and finally sacrifices herself for the love of her life. Circe hates and resents her father, who she worshiped as a child – she moves between bitterness and forgiveness on a daily basis.
Circe is at turns the victim of cruelty, then a cruel person herself, benevolent then malevolent, content then restless. To read Circe is to have your constant mind changing and daily reshaping of your core values and idols recited back to you. As in The Song of Achilles, Miller’s 2011 novel from the perspective of Patroclus, widely known for being Achilles’ lover, there are a few golden chapters in Circe towards the end of the first half in which she is isolated in nature and in complete control of every part of her day for the first time. No responsibility is thrust upon her, therefore she cultivates her own. While reading these books over my Christmas holiday, I never wanted those hazy chapters to end. These ever-changing phases are clearly reminiscent of the reality of every twenty-something’s fluctuating and unpredictable existence.
Most notably, Madeline Miller’s oeuvre as a whole acknowledges the undeniable power dynamic which has been ignored by romance novels these many years, between a person and the mother of the person they are sleeping with or dating, which verges on the biblical. Both of Miller’s narrators, Patroclus from The Song of Achilles and Circe, wrestle with but ultimately accept the relationship; the tense and uneasy understanding which exists between them unacknowledged. (Granted, Circe slept with her mother-in-law’s husband and had his second son, but it is always weird.) I urge you to read Circe this Valentine’s Day. Remember all the weird and wonderful loves you have known and are yet to meet. Forgive yourself for all your precarious moods and world views just as you forgive Circe’s. Marvel at her growth and the ease with which she somehow survived it all, perhaps with some awe left over for yourself.
Image via: Flickr by Anahoret2007