T. H. Breen

The New York Review of Books - - News -

Friends Di­vided: John Adams and Thomas Jef­fer­son by Gor­don S. Wood

She is ban­ished to her island pre­cisely be­cause the gods dis­ap­prove of and fear witch­craft. Circe is that rar­ity, a rest­less, dis­con­tented im­mor­tal who wants time to pass. And she is a god­dess on a quest for sig­nif­i­cant love.

Mhun­dred gen­er­a­tions, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease. I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who had loved me a lit­tle did not care to stay. iller has learned as many les­sons from Dis­ney as she has from Homer, and her story pleases in some of the same ways. The cast of di­vini­ties and the im­pres­sive pa­rade of Circe’s lovers—Her­mes, Daedalus, Odysseus, with whom she will have a child—pass through the book on their ad­ven­tures like an­i­ma­tions. We al­most imag­ine which rec­og­niz­able voice of which celebrity ac­tor might de­liver their speeches. They also tend to speak in the Dis­ney fairy-tale di­alect. Here is Circe con­vers­ing with the fish­er­man Glau­cos:

“Rise,” I told him. “Please. I have not blessed your nets, I have no pow­ers to do so. I am born from Na­iads, who gov­ern fresh wa­ter only, and even their small gifts I lack.”

“Yet,” he said, “may I re­turn? Will you be here? For I have never known such a won­drous thing in all my life as you.”

The gods don’t fare as well as hu­mans in Miller’s prose; the for­mer are imag­ined with less en­ergy and en­gage­ment. Bril­liant metaphor would be the natural id­iom for Circe, whose spe­cial power is trans­for­ma­tion. Yet even when Athena is on stage, Miller misses her op­por­tu­nity. Athena alights on Circe’s island “like an ea­gle in her dive . . . . She smiled like a tem­ple snake over its bowl of cream,” “looked like an ea­gle who had been div­ing upon a rab­bit.” Thanks in part to such clichés, Athena is a bore, smug, bru­tal, im­pe­ri­ous.

Miller’s work is most keenly alive in her ac­count of Circe’s par­ent­hood. Here the mu­tual in­com­pre­hen­sion em­bed­ded within the re­la­tion­ship of adult and child—ex­pe­ri­ence and naiveté, emo­tional am­biva­lence and pas­sion, the sheer amount of div­ina­tion it takes to meet a child’s daily needs and moods, the shock­ing power of a frag­ile baby over a pow­er­ful adult—trans­lates beau­ti­fully into the de­scrip­tions of god­dess and child: “A thou­sand years I had lived, but they did not feel so long as Tele­gonus’ child­hood.” There is a sug­ges­tion here of some­thing thrillingly new: the re­la­tion­ship ex­plored be­tween mother and child in these pages is epic, and wor­thy of epic. It is nei­ther merely mun­dane nor hope­lessly tragic, but dy­namic, pas­sion­ate, ten­der, an­gry, dan­ger­ous, and loving, with an in­tense, risky, phys­i­cal drama played out be­tween a vul­ner­a­ble child and a mother ob­li­gated to be pro­tec­tive even when driven mad in a con­test of wills.

It is in these pages that Miller tran­scends her fairy-tale mod­els, though she re­turns to them at the book’s con­clu­sion, some­what pre­dictably, but still poignantly. Miller un­der­stands that the best fairy tales are not only wish ful­fill­ments but also stories of the de­nial of wishes. She man­ages to com­bine both el­e­ments in her fi­nale, cre­at­ing an end­ing that is si­mul­ta­ne­ously happy and un­happy.

Circe is a novel that will surely be read dif­fer­ently by read­ers of dif­fer­ent ages: an ado­les­cent might very well be pow­er­fully af­fected by this drama of gods and mor­tals. For oth­ers, like me, the book reads as if it were one of the god­dess’s con­jur­ing tricks: a hyp­notic ex­pe­ri­ence that seems less like a novel when it is fin­ished than an il­lu­sion.

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