Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Circe by Madeline Miller

This one has been on my list for a while, so I am happy to be able to say I have finally read it.  All those awards lists and reviewers were right, it is a great book. It is not a quick easy read, but it is worth savoring, because the writing is lyrical and thought provoking.  In case you missed it, Circe tells the story of several Greek myths, in particular The Odyssey, from the point of view of Circe, who was more of a bit player in Homer’s version.  There is also a feminist twist, which I found refreshing.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, the Titan who drives the chariot of the sun every day.  Unfortunately, in Harry Potter parlance, she’s a squib. She doesn’t appear to have power, she is not beautiful, which of course was the currency women were able to trade in most easily, and what’s more, she does not appear to draw much interest from Helios, though she is desperate to earn his approval. All her life, Circe has had an affinity for mortals, unlike most of her kind.

Eventually, she falls in love with one and it is then that she discovers her power.  She is a mistress of Pharmaka, herbs and medicines, and she can use plants to cast spells, charms, etc.  In other words, she’s a witch. She changes her mortal crush into a god, and dear reader, I’ll bet you can guess what happens next.  He never really loved her. In her despair, she changes her rival into a sea monster with dire consequences. Zeus and Helios agree that Circe must be punished.  She is banished to an island, alone. The funny part is that she doesn’t mind all that much. She likes the quiet, and she enjoys learning more about her new power.  Through the visitors to her island, including Hermes, we learn the story of Odysseus and more. Ever wondered why Circe changed all the sailors who stop on her island into pigs?  Read the book!

This novel is beautifully written; it echos the poetry of The Odyssey.  One caveat, readers who are familiar with the Greek myths will enjoy it a lot more than those who are not; a certain amount of familiarity is assumed. I was one of those kids who checked out every mythology book in the junior high library, read them all, and then started over–yes, I was that nerd. (!)  So, I loved this book.

If your book club decides to read it, here are some questions for discussion:

  1. What did you know about Circe before reading this book?  What did you think her character would be like? Were you accurate–why or why not?
  2. Why do you think Circe is so different from her brothers and sister?  They all have the power of witchery, but Circe uses hers in very different ways to her siblings.
  3. Which of her lovers do you think was the love of Circe’s life and why?
  4. How do Circe’s actions with regard to her son compare with modern “snowplow parents?”
  5. Which character would you like to invite to a dinner party and why?
  6. One of the themes Circe refers to is “gods and fear,” in fact her son, Telegonus chides her for her fear.  Why do you think “gods and fear” recurs throughout Circe’s life and the novel?
  7. Would you like to be alone on an island?  What would you pack if you were banished and could only take what you could carry?
  8. Was the character of Penelope what you expected, why or why not?  Between Circe and Penelope, which one do you think you would have the easiest time being friends with and why?
  9. In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses are often portrayed as silly, vain, and mercurial (pun intended). Miller doesn’t really stray from this convention.  Why do you think the Greeks imagined their gods and goddesses this way?
  10. What role does fate play in Circe?  Do you think fate or free will is the guiding force of the plot and why did you choose as you did?