Write a story or a novel having to do with Greek or Roman mythology or the heroic journey archetype and I’m there. My interest began in California in an English course taught by one William Blake at Santa Ana College, where I learned that archetypes were like patterns underlying human behaviors, conscious or unconscious. I read voraciously—easily a hundred books—while studying for my master’s in comparative literature: Mircea Eliade’s anthropology, Grendel, Julian Jaynes, Ulysses, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and many, many more of the tales of gods, monsters and people.
So it should come as no surprise that I was interested in reading Madeline Miller’s Circe (having missed her earlier novel, The Song of Achilles). The cover art, its design rendered in embossed copper against a black background, is far and away the best thing about this book.
I never read a book’s reviews on Amazon or Goodreads or elsewhere before I finish reading the book myself. I want to form my own opinions, but once I’m done, I often mull over my impressions as I read what others have said.
And it is at this juncture that one can get into a real unpleasant kettle of fish.
Many people buy a book based on reviews they read on, say, Amazon. These reviews fall into two categories: editorial and reader. The editorial reviews are usually from familiar publishing professionals or other notables. The reader reviews are written by our peers, other readers like ourselves (aside from the Amazon 1000 top reviewers, of course).
The purpose of editorial reviews is to always be positive, and are rendered to encourage purchases. A vast majority of the peer reviews are of the same ilk. (for purposes of brevity, I won’t go into the game Amazon plays with “verified purchase.”) But peer reviews can be misleading: there are a lot of cheerleaders out there who are unqualified to write a discerning review for any one of a number of reasons, or who wish to distinguish themselves in some way by writing praiseworthy reviews. (Note how many consider a recitation of the plot a review.) And then of course there are the author’s followers, who also write only enthusiastic, positive reviews.
Reader reviews are, by and large, of little value in determining if you want to read a book. Everyone has a different perception because we are, none of us, alike. So do you look for a review that seems to mirror your own apprehensions, or hoped-for expectations? Good luck with that.
The alternative, of course, is to not read the reviews nor use them as a determinant of your interest in buying/reading the book. Or, once you’ve read the work, you read the reviews to see who agreed with you or who did not, which is what I do, just for perspective. In either case, you will quickly discern reviewer biases which are usually consistent with giving the book 5-star ratings, because of a shared personal identification with the author or a character, women favoring books written by women, similar interests in the theme, subject matter, or, indeed, the character’s “journey” (a term in popular usage which in fact stems back archetypically to the “hero-journey” and popularized by Joseph Campbell’s seminal book, Hero With A Thousand Faces).
I have no quarrel with Ms. Miller’s portrayal of Circe, who nonetheless differs in many respects from the classical Greek witch of the Odyssey and the Metamorphoses. It’s her story to tell (you pick which “her”). My criticism centers on how shallow the story is, how emotionally devoid, and how many of the events seem random without moving the plot forward. Other readers will feel differently, and I respect that. But when I was finally able to close this extraordinarily lengthy novel, I felt relief.
The pages following the story itself are a brief overview of the Titans, Olympians, monsters and humans, which I wished had come before the story, not after (I don’t read ahead). Similarly, I spent the book wondering what moly was since, like many other things, it went hinted at but not explained. The book’s overall whimsical style belied the character of just about everyone, with the possible exception of Scylla. (Bad, Scylla! Bad girl girl girl girl girl girl girl girl girl girl!!)
The author likely intended the final paragraphs to leave the reader wondering, perhaps for the first time in 385 pages, what happens next. They certainly did just that for me.