Greek mythology captured my imagination at an early age. I pored over d'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, the classic, beautifully illustrated anthology for children published in 1961. I read everything I could get my hands on, including versions meant for older eyes. Reading Greek mythology was my first glimpse of graphic violence, including rape and human sacrifice. It also brought to my consciousness the many forms of romantic and platonic love; the blurry boundaries in Ancient Greece between men and women, men and men, women and women were quite an education for an eight year old raised in a fundamentalist Christian home.
Reading Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles is like sinking into a beanbag chair at the Sequim Public Library, circa 1977, to gobble up the delicious tales of mortals battling against the gods with wits and weapons. Of course, I have to look around guiltily when it comes to Miller’s adults-only scenes, before I realize that I’m not a pre-teen reading a book meant for those big kids a few grades above me. But it’s easy to imagine this bestseller shelved just a few rows down from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, just up from Stephanie Myers’ Twilight saga.
Miller tells the tale of Achilles from the first-person point of view of his steadfast companion, Patroclus, of whom Homer’s writes only in passing reference. The premise is brilliant; the execution uneven.
Miller’s rendition of the tale of Achilles provides only cinematic substance to the story and its characters. The very best of this novel – portions of the first half where the boys come of age under the Centaur Chiron’s loving tutelage, portions of the second half where Greek kings and princes come together and rip apart during the long siege of Troy - is worthy of fine Young Adult fiction. Unfortunately, the breathy voice of its narrator pushes the narrative into the orbit of romance fiction, complete with soft-focus erotica.
Miller works hard to flesh out the character of Patroclus with a compelling back story, but he doesn’t evolve much past a moony, besotted adolescent. She tries to keep him busy during the Trojan years by endowing him with medical skills, but his limpid affect and ancillary presence are annoying. The tenderness and passion that exists between Achilles and Patroclus during their teenage years fizzles as Achilles’s star begins to shine and Patroclus becomes a hanger-on.
Achilles is the real story, but his transformation from princely courage and steadfast lover to ego-bloated warrior is given short shrift. What could have been resonant Classical themes of honor and glory sink to secondary considerations in favor of goopy love. Of course it is the author’s prerogative to focus on which part of the story she will; I adore a good love story, particularly one that breaks the heart. But it works only if the lovers involved are equally deserving of empathy and/or outrage.
This book is billed as literary fiction for adults, as a modern day retelling of an ancient tale, set unfairly on a pedestal next to the works of Mary Renault; it is the 2012 winner of the Orange Prize for fiction. I am, therefore, taken aback by the shallowness of its content and the simplicity of the writing. It is an enjoyable, but not laudable, read.