Book Club Review: “Circe”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Book Bingo” where we drew reading challenges commonly found on book bingo cards from a hat and chose a book based on that.  For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Circe” by Madeline Miller

Publishing Info: Little Brown and Company, April 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Bingo Prompt: a book with a map

Book Description: 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.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Kate’s Thoughts

I was obsessed with Greek Mythology as a kid, so much so that I would be constantly checking out books of that topic from the library, or taking little extracurricular classes on the subject in my grade school (these classes were called ‘Minis’ and we could sign up for just about any topic). In high school I took a class on Greek mythology, and one of the books we read was “The Odyssey”, the well known tale of Odysseus trying to make his way home after the Trojan War. I didn’t REALLY care for the book, but I did love the time he spent on Aeaea with Circe, the witch who turns his men into pigs. When Serena picked “Circe” for book club I was happy for two reasons. The first is that I love Madeline Miller’s book “The Song of Achilles”. The second is that “Circe” had been sitting on my shelf ever since it first came out and this was the kick to the pants I needed to pick it up.

Much like “Song of Achilles”, Miller takes a well known Greek myth and character and delves into a backstory that fits the greater mythology while exploring more modern themes and notions. In this we get the backstory of Circe the witch, from her time as the child of a Titan and a nymph to her banishment to her desert island to her time with Odysseus and beyond, while also exploring her womanhood, her isolation, her thought process, and her traumas. We see her role in other parts of Greek Mythology, sometimes being a passive player and other times being very active, and so in turn see new perspectives on some of these stories. Who could make the Minotaur pitiful, or Medea a little more complicated, or Odysseus less heroic? Madeline Miller can, and it works perfectly through the eyes of Circe as she weathers her own storms and learns her own lessons.

You need not be a fan of Greek Mythology to pick up “Circe”, as the themes are broad and relatable as a woman who has been disenfranchised has to stake a claim to her ability to live her life and keep herself and her loved ones safe. It’s resonant and powerful and I really enjoyed it.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’ve had “Circe” sitting on my TBR pile for quite a while also. That said, I also have “Song of Achilles” right there next to it. While I’ve heard great things, I’m just not up for all the tears! So it was an easy pick to just skip ahead to “Circe,” a tale that, while tragic at times, didn’t come with a foregone, ball-worthy conclusion.

I can echo everything Kate said. I, too, very much enjoyed Greek mythology as a kid and teen. I didn’t have the same resources for taking classes on the subject, but I definitely gobbled up everything I could. Even with that being the case however, I haven’t re-familiarized myself with the pantheon or myths for quite some time, so reading this book, I can speak to the fact that it’s still approachable for those with less (or older) knowledge of the original stories. For one thing, I didn’t remember just how entwined some of these stories became. It was truly impressive how many various different myths, gods, heroes, and monsters the author was able to weave Circe’s story through and around.

Circe’s story was also very much one of power, especially the unique power of being a woman. It was an all inclusive exploration, not looking away from the restrictions placed on women with power but also acknowledging the specific destructive tendencies that some powerful women can turn to in a world that would limit their options. Circe’s own experience with her magic progress over literally centuries. And we see several examples of other powerful women working with their own forms of power and existence, both to good and bad outcomes. I also really liked the versions of womanhood we see through Circe’s life. We see a daughter, a sister, a lover, a mother, a friend. All tied within her own ongoing story of self-acceptance and growth.

I really liked this book. I think it’s the kind of story that has a lot of great cross-over appeal, likely to please fans from almost all genres.

Kate’s Rating 9 : A truly marvelous exploration of a notorious character of Greek Mythology, “Circe” gives the Witch of Aeaea a compelling backstory and some well done connections to other myths while taking on themes of womanhood, power, and resilience.

Serena’s Rating 10: Simply brilliant, a powerful re-imagination of a powerful female character who has existed largely on the sidelines of mythology.

Book Club Questions

  1. How familiar were you with the Greek myths that are touched on in this story? Particularly “The Odyssey” itself?
  2. Circe and her siblings all take very different paths in life. In what ways did their upbringings make them similar and in what ways did they differ? Why do you think they each chose the paths they did?
  3. This book has many themes revolving around women and power. What aspects of this theme stood out to you? How did Circe’s attitude towards her own power shift throughout the book?
  4. Circe come from a dysfunctional family. In what ways do we see this impact her choices when raising her son? Does she fall into any of the same traps? How do her choices compare to those she was raised with?
  5. What did you think of the portrayal of the various gods and titans we see in this story? Did they align with what you knew of these mythical beings from before? In what ways did they surprise you?

Reader’s Advisory

“Circe” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Books About Mythology and Awesome Women of the Ancient World.

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