In retelling the myths through a new lens, Jennifer Saint sheds light on forgotten stories
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Every so often, I decide to read something slightly outside my preferred wheelhouse. In these instances, I find myself called to interests and genres I loved in a former life, and this was the case with Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne.
I loved Greek mythology as a young adult, and once upon a time many of these myths lived inside my brain. When I listened to the audiobook version of Madeline Miller’s Circe, I learned most of them had left my brain long ago.
I have always nursed complicated feelings about that reading experience. It didn’t help that I chose the audio version, where it would’ve been more difficult to stop my walk/drive/run to look up a particular figure and jog my memory.
Between that and the fact that it was an odd transitionary period in my life, I always wondered whether I would’ve liked the book more if I’d sat down to read it in a different headspace.
It’s not that I didn’t like it, it’s more that I… didn’t know whether I liked it and even now I still don’t?
This memory influenced my decision to choose Ariadne for my Book of the Month in May. Comparisons to Circe are everywhere in reviews and publicity material, and I thought it would be an interesting way to try out a book with a similar vibe and see how it struck me.
And so, I sat down on a Sunday afternoon to read Ariadne.
My first advice to you, dear reader, is that when choosing a book you intend to read in a single day, do not pick one that is based upon Greek tragedy. That is not a headspace you want to live inside for a full day, regardless of how beautiful the prose or how haunting the tale.
But this didn’t occur to me, and I’ve been going through books at a quick enough clip lately. So, I thought I’d keep up the pace.
I didn’t come to Ariadne with a ton of prior knowledge about her story. I knew vaguely (from the jacket copy) that she was involved with Theseus and the Minotaur, and felt that would be enough to carry me.
Like Circe, I think the story carries itself well even in absence of intimate knowledge of Greek mythology. Certainly, there were times when I felt I would’ve better understood where we were headed or where the author made interesting choices if I had a better grip of the myths, but it never hindered my understanding of the story itself.
Rather, I enjoyed being inside Ariadne’s mind and seeing how acutely she observes a truth of so many of our myths and legends — that it is often the women who pay for the faults and wrongdoings of men.
She traces this awareness through her observing her mother, and the story of Medusa, and yet it does not fully save her from becoming a victim in her own right. I’ll hedge here in case you, like me, didn’t really know what happened to Ariadne after the whole business with the Minotaur.
I was a bit shocked when, after the entirety of Part I was told through Ariadne’s eyes, we shifted to the perspective of her sister. This felt an odd narrative choice, as the perspectives then rotated through the rest of the book. Why was Phaedra’s point of view absent from the first part but present throughout the rest? I’m sure there was a reason, but I can’t quite land upon it.
In spite of this, I did enjoy the narration from both perspectives once I settled into understanding that was the book’s plan for Parts II and III.
One of the great things about books like Circe and Ariadne is that they let us see more into the stories of the women who are so often ancillary figures in these stories (though, admittedly, Hera seems to be the one who sets the ball rolling, like, 90% of the time). I enjoyed seeing the inner workings of these women’s minds as they tried to work within the constraints of their place in society to form lives worth living.
I did not enjoy the tragic endings to their stories, though of course, I could have anticipated them since generally speaking Greek myths are not cheery stories.
Books like these are difficult for me to wrap my head around when it comes to rating and reviews, which I so often base upon my enjoyment of a book. And enjoyment hits differently with those books that are sad and painful and tragic.
Did I enjoy myself while reading? In bits and spurts, yes, but with a hand draped over one eye to shield me from the scary future I knew must be lurking for these characters I had come to love.
So perhaps a different metric is in order here. Do I feel like the time it took me to read this book was worthwhile? Yes. Do I feel like I learned a bit about Greek mythology while reimagining it through a more feminist lens? Also yes.
I recommend this book to people who enjoy retellings of old myths, and to those who are okay with having a bit of a cry in the end. And if you do intend to read it over the course of a single day as I did, be prepared for some weird dreams.
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