Image description: The cover of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The cover is green, showing part of a face and a torso in an emerald green dress.
One of the benefits of supporting my Patreon is that you get access to first-look posts, like the first draft of this review, which was available to patrons last week.
And sometimes you get access to posts that never make it to the blog! April was such a busy month, and patrons got to read the first draft reviews of the books I read that month.
Will I ever write up full reviews of the books I read in April?
Who knows! If you’re desperate to know what I thought about The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Introducing Teddy by Jessica Walton, A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert, and why I stopped reading Attachments by Rainbow Rowell and The Color Purple by Alice Walker, you’ll have to head over to the Patreon! (The three books I finished were all excellent and important, so I’m sure I will write up the full reviews eventually, but I’m not sure when.)
I started The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo at the end of April because I completely gave up on finding an epistolary novel that I could actually finish, and I just wanted to read something queer and feminist and fun. I’ve been making good progress on the Read Harder 2019 challenge, and at the end of April I had finished 9 of the 24 categories. So I figured I could take a break and read something outside of the challenge.
I’ve been in quite a serious Sad Mood since I got back from Australia, and I needed something fun. This review from Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian is what convinced me to give this book a try.
Evelyn is ambitious, hard-working, confident, and cut-throat. She describes herself in this way: “I’m cynical and I’m bossy and most people would consider me vaguely immoral.” She’s also explicitly, wonderfully BISEXUAL. I knew the book had queer content going in, but I had no idea that it tackled bisexual identity so specifically. There’s a specific scene early on in the interview process where Evelyn coolly asserts that she’s bisexual, and not gay as Monique has just assumed. Evelyn makes it clear she loved her husband and then a woman, so “don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box. Don’t do that.” It was such a perfect slap in the face of monosexism. GO EVELYN. This section, as well as more than one other part in the novel, brought me to tears.
Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian
It turns out that this book is an epistolary novel, since nearly every other chapter is either an excerpt from the book-within-a-book, or a series of newspaper articles, or a letter.
So I bailed right into exactly the right book. Delightful!
And this book truly was delightful.
The writing is witty and sharp, the characters are nuanced and well-rounded, and there are some really well-crafted moments of emotional intensity.
I’ll start with what I’m less enthused about… I read this immediately after finishing A Girl Like Her, a book about an autistic Black woman, written by an autistic Black woman, and reading half of The Color Purple, also by a Black woman, also very clearly about race by someone with insider knowledge. The fact that Taylor Jenkins Reid does not have this insider knowledge, and includes two protagonists of colour (Monique Grant is biracial, and Evelyn Hugo is Cuban, though entirely and intentionally white-passing), lent a certain lack of depth and nuance to the discussions of race. It wasn’t that the representation was terrible or stereotypical, but coming immediately after being immersed in writing about race, by Black authors, I noticed it.
For example, we learn that Ruth, the protagonist of Talia Hibbert’s A Girl Like Her, is Black organically, later in the book, through physical descriptions that refuse to exoticize or dramatize the fact that she’s Black. It was revealed in the same casual way that many descriptions of white characters are done; skin tone is not the most interesting or relevant part of the character’s experience of themselves. And Hibbert managed this without downplaying Ruth’s experience of racism in the majority-white town.
In contrast, Monique’s skin tone and biracial identity are introduced in the very first paragraph. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but the contrast really struck me. When I read that description, I had to pause the audiobook and look up the author, because it came across as someone wanting to draw attention to the capital-D Diversity of their writing.
After that initial impression, I wanted to get a better understanding of what I was about to read. I tracked down some interviews with Taylor Jenkins Reid that specifically addressed her choice to write queer characters and characters of colour when she is white and straight, she acknowledged how problematic this is, and talked about the thought that she put into it. I also appreciate that she’s said she won’t be writing another book like this, and will instead focus on amplifying marginalized writers.
From an interview at Bi.org:
Do you think it’s your place to to tell the story of how these marginalized groups feel when you’re white and straight?
Yes, and no. Most importantly, no. We have a problem, in publishing and entertainment, of not centering minority voices. The solution to that problem is to bolster and support minority writers. There is no replacement or substitution for the incredibly important and, quite frankly, exciting work of reading, celebrating, and promoting minority writers. I naturally read stories of people different than myself but I’ve made a concerted effort to spend the small power behind my name blurbing minority voices and I will continue to spend whatever platform I have to champion the work of minority voices. This is what the majority should be doing and it is, first and foremost, where our energy needs to be spent.
Work written by people who have lived the story is always going to have a beauty and honesty that cannot be matched by someone writing outside of their own life.
The reason why I wrote this book despite not being queer or biracial is because, due to my work writing about straight white women, I have an audience. I continue to be handed a microphone. I have a book deal. And my feeling was that I could use that book deal, that immense privilege, to continue to write about people like myself or I could use it to write about people that often get pushed to the sidelines.
I chose to center my story on women who are underrepresented. I’m able to do that and still be considered mainstream because of my previous work. Which means I’m able to put a queer story in the mainstream and put it in front of people who might not otherwise read one. I am in a unique position to be able to do that and so I chose to do it.
But then I come back to my original point. It’s very hard to parse out, even for me, the line where good intentions can turn into misrepresentation or to a loss of opportunities for people to tell their own stories. I’m very proud of this book but the rest of my energy, for the time being, will be spent in trying to lift up other people to tell their stories themselves.
There was a lot of racial diversity in the book, and I did appreciate the fact that the cast was more reflective of reality than a lot of books manage. These characters included both of the protagonists, as mentioned, but also many of the secondary characters, including two of Evelyn’s long-term personal assistants, and one of the major love interests in the novel. It is absolutely notable that two women of colour (one Latinx and one Asian American) are hired domestic labour, but I also noticed that the first person introduced as domestic labour is a white woman (which serves the purpose of destabilizing the idea that women of colour who cannot pass as white are relegated to the role of housekeeper, and allows the deep relationships that Evelyn has with the women later in the book to unfold in less problematic ways).
So, having noted that, on to what I loved!
I loved so much about this book.
I loved that Evelyn is such a complex character, who does horrible things in order to survive, and does other horrible things in order to succeed, and she looks at her own life with clear but compassionate eyes. Early in the book, when Evelyn has told Monique that she will tell her her life story, Monique says, “so you’ll confess your sins to me?” Evelyn is quick and firm in her correction. She says, “I didn’t say anything about sins. I’ll tell you the whole truth of my life, but I am not ashamed.” (Paraphrased because I listened to the excellent audiobook.)
Evelyn is bisexual.
The love of her life is a woman.
Her best friend, and the father of her child, is a gay man.
The lengths they go to in order to hide their orientations are sometimes extreme, and Jenkins Reid situates these choices in a historical context that includes threats to career and safety (a context that we often believe has changed, but for too many people, has not changed enough).
The core group (Evelyn and Harry married, Celia and John married; Evelyn and Celia lovers, Harry and John lovers) are together in New York during the Stonewall riots, and there are some wrenching conversations (and disagreements between them) as to how best to support their community of fellow queer folks without jeopardizing Evelyn and Harry’s guardianship of their child.
I read this book through the lens of my own anti-capitalist politics, and through that lens, I find the choice to contribute primarily through philanthropic donations that still leave each of them extremely wealthy… frustrating. I recognize that it fits with Evelyn’s character, and I recognize that it fits with what most people do, but it’s not enough. It’s just not enough. Especially now, as we try to figure out how to respond to massive and systemic injustice, I want to see representations of responding to injustice in ways that don’t so neatly align with capitalism and the charity model.
Still though. Overall… I really loved this book.
I loved the moment when Monique calls Evelyn a gay woman and Evelyn corrects her and confidently claims the label of bisexual.
I loved the moment when Monique assumes that the problems between Celia and Evelyn were because of Evelyn’s bisexuality, and Evelyn again corrects her and tells her that the problem was never that Evelyn was bisexual. It’s such a rare thing to see bisexuality represented in ways that are both complex and positive.
And I also loved the message of unapologetic success, even though it grated against my anti-capitalism. I loved how Evelyn demanded success for herself, and pushed Monique to demand it for herself, too.
I really recommend this book, and I’m glad that I gave myself permission to read a non-challenge book (and in the process, completed a category I had been struggling with!)
You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!
I am so thrilled to share this collaboration between myself and one of the community members I work with.
In a recent narrative therapy conversation, the community member I was speaking with shared some moving words about why they’ve chosen to stay in their context and continue to showing up for community despite obstacles. We also spoke about the pressure on marginalized individuals to stay in hostile contexts and “be strong,” and about the need to support people in making the choice that is right for them, whether that choice is to stay or to leave a challenging context.
We turned some of their powerful words into affirming posters, with the hope that these might bring some comfort and validation to other marginalized people who are making choices about what to do with their lives!
The images were chosen to honour the wisdom of dark-skinned Black women, who are so often not listened to.
I am incredibly fortunate to work with the people who choose to consult with me, and all I can say is that we should all be so lucky as to hear the wisdom of Black women. What an honour to be allowed to listen, and then to share some of that wisdom.
If any of these resonate for you, I’d love to hear about it and share your words back with the person who inspired and collaborated on the creation of these images.
We would also love if you wanted to share these images, if they resonate for you!
(I’m having a set of them printed up on glossy paper to bring to our next narrative session.)
EDITED TO ADD: After a conversation with a concerned community member, I have added photographer information and links to the images, and have remade one of the images to source an image from a Black photographer.
Collecting the self-care posts that I shared over the course of the April 16 election day.
It’s Election Day in Alberta! I’m going to be sharing self-care prompts throughout the day. We’ll be back to a more regular schedule of posting tomorrow. It’s first thing in the morning in Alberta, and I imagine that some folks are already awake and sitting with the intensity of this election. If you’re up, and you’re sitting next to an anxiety gremlin, join me in breathing for a moment. Not a “breathing exercise,” just a breath. I know sometimes that’s really challenging, for a variety of reasons that might include anxiety, or panic, or allergies, or congestion, or chronic health concerns. Whatever the breath feels like, just notice it. If you can breathe with some intentionality, do that. Can you bring the breath deeper? Can you feel where it goes on its own, or where it feels like it needs to be? Sometimes anxiety sits in the middle of my belly, and a breath helps. Sometimes my shoulders tighten up really tight, and a breath helps. Sometimes being told to breathe is just annoying. What’s it like for you, today?
Our second self-care prompt for Election Day in Alberta. Have you had anything to eat yet today? Are you hungry? Check in with yourself. Lots of folks will be volunteering today, working at polling stations or driving folks to polling stations or doing other important jobs. If that’s you, can you throw a snack in your bag on the way out? If you’re dealing with the emotional intensity of today and it’s making it hard to eat, what might help? Have you experienced emotional intensity like this before? How did you get through that time?
Are you thirsty? Have you had anything hydrating to drink yet today? What’s your favourite morning beverage? I’m in Australia today (I voted by special ballot before I left!) and when I’m here, I have a flat white with two sugars in the morning, and I love the apple juice over here. When I’m at home, I have my nesting partner’s amazing coffee – black, with maple syrup. What gets you started in the morning? Stress and anxiety can leave lots of us feeling wrung out. Staying hydrated sometimes helps. Is there anything you could do to remind yourself to stay hydrated today?
I really struggle with the way self-care is talked about in a lot of spaces – the way it’s commodified and individualized, and turned into yet another task for overburdened and marginalized communities to take on. I think that self-care is inextricably linked to community care, and that when we talk about self-care, we have to do it carefully. We have to be conscious of the ways in which self-care advice can actually cause stress and harm, and the ways in which self-care tools are differentially accessible to different communities. However, I also really value the way that people develop self-care strategies in even the most challenging situations! As much as I reject and critique the idea of individualized self-care (the idea that we can single-handedly make ourselves and our contexts better), I also really recognize and honour the ways in which people do exactly that! People are *always* responding to the hard times in their lives and the challenges in front of them. What are your favourite self-care skills or strategies? Is there a particular self-care story that you love to tell, or to remember? My very favourite self-care story is actually a community care story. When I met one of my most cherished friends, she noticed that I had a habit of speaking about myself in unkind ways. She designed basically a training program for me – for weeks, months!, she would check in with me about how my self-talk was going. She wrote me cards, gave me little gifts, and was basically a cheerleader for me as I worked to change that habit of unkind self-talk. I did manage to change that habit, and it was possible because I made it a priority, and because someone saw what was happening for me, and made an effort to support me in making changes towards something I wanted. Have you ever been supported, or offered support, through a process of change? I think that remembering some of these stories of care (self-care and community care) can help us remember how skillful we are at responding to hard times. No matter how today goes, we bring these skills with us.
Do you need to stretch? Sometimes emotional intensity can find a home in our bodies, and we can end up pretty uncomfortable. Where do you store your tension? How’s that part of your body doing right now? Can you give it a little gentle movement?
Whatever happens today, our communities will require care. We have seen that Alberta is not insulated from the kind of hate and cruelty that we’ve watched rise up in the States and in Ontario and across the globe. It will take time and effort to heal, and the process of healing will be an ongoing process because the hurts are also ongoing. I love this article by Shivani Seth on the topic of creating communities and contexts of care. If you need help imagining hopeful and possible futures, I suggest reading this.
Have you had any kind, supportive, one-on-one interactions with another person yet today? Intense emotions can be so isolating, and social media can leave us inundated with social information but isolated from social connection. What do you do when you’re feeling a bit isolated? How did you learn these skills? Are there any skills related to responding to the feeling of isolation that you’d like to practice? Would now be a good time to try out a new way, or a reliable way, of responding to feelings of isolation?
When was the last time you felt something really pleasurable? One of my favourite authors, adrienne maree brown, just published a new book called Pleasure Activism. In it, she includes dozens of essays by a wide range of writers on the topic of pleasure in a variety of contexts. The book is specifically about how pleasure can be, perhaps even must be, part of how we respond to oppression. Is there something you can do for yourself this afternoon that would be pleasurable? Can you find something soothing to touch, or something delicious to taste, or someone cherished to connect with? Is there a small moment of pleasure that you can invite into what may be a difficult and emotional day? You can read an interview with adrienne maree brown here. (Content note on this article for discussion of substance use and sex.) “In order to feel pleasure, you have to feel the whole breadth of your emotional spectrum and how to communicate [your] needs. There’s an aspect of it that’s also about surrender. If you orient [the world] around a collective community of care, then there’s plenty of stuff [available] if we know how to share it. A lot of pleasure activism is also leaning into the simple pleasures of existing, right here, right now.”
What is the memeing of this?!?! Share your favourite meme. Send a meme to a friend. Post a meme on your page. MEMES! I’ll start. (Memes are *absolutely* my favourite form of quickly accessible self-care.)
This post is a great resource to keep handy. It includes over a dozen questions and self-care prompts. It’s particularly useful if you are feeling intensely distressed, depressed, or suicidal. Getting through election day might be challenging. A lot of folks are scared, angry, and feeling uncertain about the future. Waiting for the result of such an important election, where the stakes are so high and hope has been low, can be overwhelming. I know that saying, “if you need help, reach out” is often trite and unhelpful. Many of us would reach out if we could, but intense emotions can keep us quiet for a wide variety of reasons. If you’re struggling, consider starting with this checklist. If you’re struggling and you feel able to reach out, the Calgary Distress Centre is available 24/7, with text-based support available from 3 pm to 10 pm. https://www.distresscentre.com/ The Edmonton Distress Line is also available. https://edmonton.cmha.ca/programs-services/distress-line/
Have you gotten any fresh air today, or spent any time with plants or animals? Can you find a way to engage with nature? Maybe you can actually go outside. Maybe you can pet an animal. Maybe you can water a houseplant, or look out the window and really notice what the sky looks like, or the plants outside the window. This world is amazing. We are part of this world.
Art can be resistance and response. Creativity can be resistance and response. When was the last time you did something creative or artistic? Could you break out the pencil crayons or the paint or the stickers or the knitting needles and do something creative this evening? Maybe take a cue from some of the folks who have been responding to hateful rhetoric in this election and take some sidewalk chalk out to share some strategic affirmations. Can you do some art that will, to quote my beloved friend Nathan, affirm your pain or support your function? Art can make our lives more possible, can invite us into a moment of agency, action, and creative choice. In the face of terror and overwhelm, this can be powerful. (I am a fan of stick figures, myself.)
One of my cherished friends reminded me last night that being helpful can really help the person doing the helping to feel better. If you’re feeling the emotional intensity of today and it’s starting to wear you down, know that you are not alone. There are a lot of things going on today, a lot of narratives running through many of our minds. It’s a lot. What are your favourite ways to help other people? Do you enjoy baking for friends? Do you like reaching out with a text, or sending a meme, or sharing an article? Do you prefer doing tangible acts, like helping someone tidy their house or running an errand for them? Do you like helping someone reframe a difficult situation that they’re facing? What is your favourite story of yourself as someone who helps? Is there anyone in your life who might need some help today, that you feel you might be able to reach out to? This election has shown us that there is a lot of hate and willingness to cause harm in our province, but it has also shown us that there are so many of us who are willing to step forward and offer help. There are many true stories of this election, and they do not cancel each other out. It has been hard and horrible, and it will continue to be hard and horrible. AND, at the same time, our communities are beautiful and resilient, and will continue to be beautiful and resilient.
This election has felt intense and overwhelming. And I think that part of this intensity, part of this overwhelm, is that this election follows a trajectory that we have been on for a while. We have been witnessing harm, and the escalation of overt acts of hate and aggression, for a long time. We have seen it in the States, and in Ontario, and in the UK, and in many other countries*. For some communities, this has been an unrelenting experience of oppression for many generations. For all of us, the impacts have become more visible, more overt. We see the changes happening in our environmental, economic, and political contexts. I am in Australia to convocate from my Masters of Narrative Therapy and Community Work program. For my final project, I looked at narrative responses to political distress. You can watch that video here. I’m sharing this today because I want to affirm for our communities that we have already been responding to hardship. We have skills that will continue to be available to us. We have cherished values and histories of action. Whatever happens in this election, and in the upcoming federal election, and in the global context – whatever happens, we will continue to respond. We will turn our hopelessness into action. We will weave safety nets for each other and with each other. As G. Willow Wilson says, there may not be a way out, but there is always a way forward. We will find that way forward together.#abvote
* I want to note that this experience of rising hate is *not* universal across our globe. Rwanda, Ethiopia, New Zealand, and many other countries have found a different trajectory. If you want to feel some hope, look up what is happening politically in those three countries. Women in Sudan have been the driving force behind ousting the president and demanding better representation. And even on our own continent, communities are finding ways to map a new path. This story of harm and rising violence is not the only true story of our time.
A while ago, I co-created and participated in the Tender Year project with Nathan Fawaz and Stasha Huntingford. In this project, which was powerful and life-changing for me, we had seven prompts, one per weekday, and we reflected on these prompts every day. On Saturdays, we wrote affirmations. Affirmations for ourselves, for our communities, for the world. We asked, what do you need to hear? What do you need to affirm for yourself or for your people? I struggled with the affirmations (I struggled with all the prompts at different times in the year) but I also found them powerful. So often, affirmations are demanded from people who are struggling, and affirmations are presented as a singular solution to systemic oppression. But when we uncouple affirmations from these ableist and capitalist discourses, they can actually be incredibly powerful. They can affirm for us who we are, what we cherish, where we have been, and how we want to be in the world. They can open up possibilities that feel closed off by the anti-affirmations so many of us are confronted with on a regular basis. What do you need to hear, today, this evening, as the polls close and the long count begins? What do you need to affirm for yourself or for your people? Nathan offers us these as a place to start: “Spend on the world you wish to create.” “Exile nothing.” “Call yourself home.” “Orient towards the possible.” “The possible is an exchange between heart and lungs.” “The possible first feels like relief, and then dares to be joy.” What are your affirmations today?
Is your body feeling nourished right now? Do you need to eat, or have something to drink? It’s been a long day, and lots of us either forget to eat during stressful days, or struggle to eat when the emotional intensity is present. If you’re hungry, or if you know that you need to eat, is there anything you can nourish yourself with? My go-to calorie-intake on stressful days or high-pain days is a London Fog. I appreciate the ritual of making myself a London Fog, and I appreciate that I can get some calories into myself without having to eat anything solid. What are your tricks for days when eating is difficult or inaccessible?
Friends. I see the panic. I feel it, too. If they’re right about the outcome of this election, we will grieve and we will rage and we *will* keep fighting for each other. I know you feel sick. I do, too. Breathe, beloveds. Put your hand on your chest and feel your good heart beating. You are alive. You have done everything you can to keep us and our communities and our kids safe, and now we will figure out what to do next. The outcome hasn’t been determined, the advanced poll votes won’t even be counted until tomorrow. But I know how bad it looks. I love you. We will figure out how to move forward together. You are alive. You are here. You are not alone. Your good heart is beating and you will continue to make a difference in the lives of the vulnerable and hurting. We are not alone. Unstick your tongue from the roof of your mouth. Breathe. Push your shoulders down from your ears. Squeeze your eyes shut for a moment and then open them wide. Let the feelings move through your good and knowledgeable body. Breathe. Find each other. We will weave safety nets for and with each other. There may not be a way out, but there is always a way forward.
How are your nerves right now? Feelin’ a bit frayed? Is there anything accessible that would be soothing for you right now? Although bubble baths and cups of tea won’t solve the world’s problems, there is absolutely sometimes a place for them in offering comfort and a moment of peace.
How was today for you? What is the story of this day? There can be some value in naming our acts of living, and in naming the values that we held close through a difficult time. What choices did you make today? What were the values that informed these choices? What were you valuing when you made the choice? Is there anyone in your life who knows that you made these choices? Who, in your life, would be least surprised to know what your strong values are? Did the choices that you made today make a difference in anyone else’s life, or might it make a difference in someone else’s life to know that you made these choices? What choices did you witness other people making today that align with your values or hopes? What values do you think they were holding onto, that allowed them to make these choices? Will their choices make a difference in your life? We are not passive recipients of trauma or hardship. We are always responding. We can hold onto that truth, no matter what happens in the near future. #abvote
The Letters of Support for the Trans Community project has been running since October, and now we have the first volume of the zine complete! This volume includes letters from across Canada and Australia. The project is ongoing, so if you’d like to submit a letter either in physical or digital form, please let me know.
This link is freely shareable – there is no cost to download the PDF.
If you would like a physical copy of the zine, they are available for purchase directly from me, or from Shelf Life Books in Calgary, Alberta.
If you are a trans person wanting a letter of support, the zine, along with a physical card, will be mailed out to you at no charge. Just get in touch with me!
If you would like to support this project, consider backing my Patreon! You can also make a one-time donation by getting in touch with me.
I finished reading Madeline Miller’s Circe a couple weeks ago, but it has been a pretty intense couple weeks over here, so I’m late on this review! This was my Read Harder 2019 book for the category of “a book of folklore or mythology.”
This book was exactly the powerful witch goddess narrative I needed in my life.
(There’ll be spoilers here. Also, content note for referencing rape.)
When I was young, and then when I was older, and then still when I was as old as I am now, so basically always, I have loved mythology. I loved all the old pantheons, but I also grew up in colonialism and so the pantheon I knew best was the Greek. But even though I knew the name Circe, I wasn’t as familiar with her as I was with others.
But Madeline Miller made her real.
The book is phenomenal, beautiful, moving. I listened to the audiobook, and narrator Perdita Weeks brings so much warmth and emotion to Circe’s telling of her own story. (This first person narration is the exact right choice for this book.)
More than anything else, I loved the complexity of the relationships.
Particularly the relationships of divine women living under patriarchy. The depiction of lateral and relational violence between women was woven throughout the book, but there was a subtext of making visible the power relations that forced women to act in complicity with patriarchy against each other. This was never more evident than in Circe’s relationship with her sister Pasiphaë (although her relationship with Scylla is a close, close second). I appreciate that Circe is not somehow above these pressures toward complicity, and I appreciate also that once she realizes what is happening, she resists it. This feels more hopeful to me than a narrative of someone who is just always above these pressures.
But it isn’t just the relationships with other women that are represented with complexity and nuance. Circe’s relationships with divine men are also vivid and complex. And, throughout this book, the operations of power are made visible. The way Glaucus’ behaviour changes as his social standing changes, changes that are echoed by her brother Aeetes once he gains his kingdom. Both of these relationships force Circe to re-examine her attachments, and her trust. Her relationship with her father is also interesting, especially as she learns to see him with less devotion and more insight. And her relationship with Hermes situates her as… not an equal in power or in social standing, but certainly an active and intentional partner in the relationship. I appreciated that contrast, of having at least an equal say even if not equal social footing, in her relationship with Hermes as compared with the other relationships with men. All of these are relationships with other gods.
And, of course, there are her relationships with mortal men. Daedalus and Odysseus and Telemachus – all the name dropping was delightful, but the fleshing out of relationships with each of them was just so well-done. (I loved Daedalus. Crush level: mega. Not as mega as my crush on Circe though.)
Power is a significant focus of the book. Circe’s first interaction with a mortal man is Glaucus before she changes him into a god, and they have a gentle, enjoyable friendship. But after Glaucus, after Circe is banished to Aeaea, Circe meets mortal sailors and they attack her, try to rob her, and the captain tries to rape her. Circe transforms the men into pigs. For many, many years, men come to her island and most of them are transformed into pigs. If they attempt to rob her, if they attempt to harm her, if they look like they might – pigs.
In her relationship with Odysseus, they share an agreement that distrust is often the safer and better approach. Both Odysseus and Circe have harmed and killed many, not all of whom deserved it. And I found this interaction interesting, because Odysseus moves through the patriarchal world with the power of being a man, and when he opts for distrust, there is a lot of systemic power behind it. Circe learned to move through the world with distrust because she does not have that same power under patriarchy, and it was the violence of patriarchy that taught her to distrust men. But Circle does have power. She’s a god. She can turn men into pigs when they try to harm her.
I don’t know where I take this noticing. It seems like there is something here about power and how we wield power, power in context, the difference between structural power and situational power. In writing this review, I read a lot of other reviews, and I agree with the assessment by Electric Lit (content note in the link for some ableist language), that Circe does not consistently challenge the definition or meaning of power, it just grants that same hierarchical power to Circe rather than allowing it to stay with men. This is exactly the thing that nudged at me, that made me think about white feminism and cis feminism and all the other feminisms that have claimed power (and yay! I love that!) but have not gone on to challenge the structures of power fundamentally. This leaves so many other vulnerable groups without access to this claimed power.
This absolutely was the power witch narrative I needed in my life, but it is also imperfect. There’s so much that is done so well in terms of demonstrating how power operates, and how patriarchy pushes the marginalized into competition with each other and complicity with the very system that is harming them (something that also applies to other systems of privilege and dominance – think of capitalism). But I wish it went further.
One part of the book that I keep returning to in my thoughts is the small interaction between Circe and Prometheus. It’s just a short interaction, but Circe returns to it many times when she’s telling her own story. It’s formative for her. Prometheus shows her that there is another way to be; that there are alternative stories available to her, despite how rigid the lives of the Titans and Olympians are. If any part of the book does challenge existing notions of power, it is Prometheus and Circe’s reflections on him. He took power from the gods, and chose not to hold onto it despite the cost to himself. He gave the power away and paid for it. I appreciated this. I wanted more from this – I wanted her to visit Prometheus on his rock, or to expand on this. It felt so important, but always just at the edge of my understanding. I just wanted more from this. But I think the fact that there wasn’t more was a wise authorial choice – it keeps me coming back, and even throughout the book I kept wondering.
Madeline Miller stays relatively close to the source material (I know, because every time a new name was dropped or action described, I paused the audio and headed to google!) but despite the fact that so many parts of the story were familiar already, the story was fresh and exciting. And feminist! The whole book just gave me happy feminist feels – patriarchy is apparent throughout, but it is also critiqued throughout. And I also appreciated the fact that the book acknowledges the presence and advancement of other cultures. Although the book stays within the Greek gods, there are references to other cultures and other pantheons – just small, but enough to alert the reader “hey, the privileging of this storyline and the way it is taken up in Enlightenment discourse and then in colonization… pay attention. There are other gods. There are other cultures. Those cultures are interesting and advanced enough that Daedalus wants to learn from them.” I appreciated this.
And I know I’ve already mentioned how much I loved the representation of relationships between women, but I need to take a moment to specifically appreciate the relationship between Penelope and Circe. This relationship happens at the end of the book, and it is such a stark contrast to the earlier relationships with women. Here, instead of being turned against each other by patriarchal power, two powerful women are able to join together to continue a legacy of resisting patriarchal power. Like Prometheus, this is another example where power is redefined and challenged.
When Penelope takes on the mantle of Witch of Aeaea, I almost cried.
Penelope and Circe are also both mothers. Motherhood is an important theme throughout the book, also. I appreciated that motherhood was not easy for Circe, and that the book challenged the idea that a person is either soft and warm and motherly and falls easily into the role, or cold and distant and abusive. Circe struggles with motherhood, struggles with how to raise Telegonus, and still loves him. She is still an attentive and caring mother even though it is not smooth or easy. This isn’t a narrative that I see reflected very often.
This will definitely be a re-read for me. I highly recommend it, and would love to chat about it if you end up reading it!
You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!