There is a reason that Madeline Miller’s Circe has been everywhere since it debuted in April. It’s amazing.
I’m about two chapters from the end, and there’s so much that’s spoken to me in it: A woman reclaiming a minor, vilified character of a woman from Homer and giving her an entire, worthy epic piece of literature.
Everything about the structure of this book is so exquisitely intentional. Miller limited Odysseus to only two chapters of Circe’s story, because she was just in two books of The Odyssey.
There’s the breakdown of how the nymphs of mythology are only there as objects to be plundered by god and man.
There’s the Disney-esque story of a girl who has something deep inside those around her don’t appreciate and watching that come into bloom into something that terrifies even a force as powerful as Zeus.
I love what Miller said in this interview about why Circe was her no-brainer choice to focus on: “I love the fact that she’s one of the very few women in mythology who’s allowed to live independently, to have power, to be frightening to the gods and to not be punished for it.”
And of course, I love Miller’s own audaciousness in taking on Homer. Work that an ex-boyfriend once dismissed as “Homeric fanfiction” (Suck on that New York Times Bestseller rank, a-hole…)
But my favorite part of the book has been the last third when Circe becomes a mother. Even the experience of immortal mothers, it seems, are relatable. The desire to protect her child at all costs, the way her child saves her in many ways, the difficulty and frustration of motherhood…loving something so unconditionally that can cause you so much pain. That battle between protectiveness and letting go. And the moment when she twice, painfully, gives her son to the world in letting him leave Aiaia.
I was in Memphis with my kids last week, and—thanks to this brilliant Chairman Mom thread—made sure to carve out an hour or so most days to go run and get some headspace between multiple Lacy generations asking me things. “Sarah…mama….Sarah….mama….”
I listened to Circe as I ran.
I’ve had my kids more than a week straight now, working only a few hours each day, mostly devoted to their needs. We are deep in that Stockholm syndrome part of vacation, where they’re regularly annoying me, and I’m also doting on them in ways I don’t usually, particularly in these last few days. Pushing them on swings much longer than I usually do given they’re old enough to pump their own d**n legs, making up songs about our baggage being on carousel 2…that kind of thing.
Tonight, when I was putting Eli to bed he started to sob about leaving me tomorrow, because it’s time for a week at Dad’s and I’m going to Seattle Tuesday for work anyway. He’s mostly just exhausted from all the travel and sun and family and swimming and sweating, not to mention an epic sugar-hangover of being at his grandparents’ house for a week. I could have just kissed him and closed the door and let him just fall asleep.
But I remembered Circe’s pain in releasing her son to the world. Her curse that as an immortal she lives forever and best case can only keep her son safe for 60 or so years. The fine line between protecting him from Athena no matter what it costs and whom she releases him to later on.
Also swirling in my mind was the opening short before the Incredibles 2, Bao—one of the most vividly dark and striking depictions of this line between protection and release I’ve seen on screen.
(Side note: Why did you all warn me about the misogynistic overtones in Incredibles 2, but no one said a damn word about Bao? It’s impressive that Pixar can now make me ugly cry in a dark theatre in just a few minutes.)
Thinking of these stories where women loved their sons enough to release them to the world, I stayed in Eli’s room with him until the crying stopped, and he finally fell asleep.
Looking at his tearstained lashes and cheeks and rosy lips as he finally drifted to sleep with his “dream list” of happy things taped to his headboard and his arm slung around his mom, I thought of how much pain, rebellion, heartbreak, and letting go is coming for us. So much worse—no doubt—than when he stomps his feet and says how mad he is at me when I ask him to put toothpaste on his sister’s toothbrush.
“Please let him always love me this much,” I thought. “Or at least let him always know that I love him this much…”
Here are our questions of the day:
– Sarah Lacy