BY RENN ELKINS ’20
Throughout this academic year, the Odyssey Bookshop has presented readings from a variety of esteemed authors, from “Wicked” writer Gregory Maguire to Mount Holyoke professor Christine DeLucia. On Monday, April 16, it hosted novelist Madeline Miller, known for her debut novel “The Song of Achilles.” At the Odyssey, Miller delivered a talk and included a reading from her second novel, “Circe,” less than a week after its April 10 release.
“Circe” follows in the footsteps of “The Song of Achilles,” retelling famous threads of Greek mythology. Miller’s website describes “Circe,” a dramatized biography of the titular witch, as “a triumph of storytelling, an intoxicating epic of family rivalry, palace intrigue, love and loss as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man’s world.”
“Circe” has just hit the shelves of the Odyssey Bookshop. Many Mount Holyoke students were already familiar with “The Song of Achilles,” which retells the myth of Achilles and Patroclus in an explicitly romantic light. Published in 2011, the novel received favorable reviews from Vogue, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, TIME magazine and even J.K. Rowling. In 2012, it won the 17th Orange Prize, a prestigious UK literary accolade described by The Los Angeles Times as an award “to a female author for a work of fiction written in English.”
Theo Claire ’20 first read “The Song of Achilles” around age 14. “I wasn’t out to [basically] anyone, and my dysphoria was exacerbated by the gender-divided activities we were doing,” said Claire. “So reading ‘The Song of Achilles’ was absolutely escapism [from dysphoria and the pressure of a closeted life].”
Eleanor Schanilec ’20 told a different story. “It [was] one of the first [...] books post-puberty where I actually felt connected to the main character,” she said. “I really like how it shows such a complex queer relationship [...] and ties it in so seamlessly to the familiar mythological figures. Schanilec, who identifies as polyamorous, added that ‘the main character felt real and relatable in a way that it helped [her] understand [her] own position in [her] current relationship.” She recognized herself not only in the central love story between Achilles and Patroclus, but also in the character of Briseis, a woman who grows close to both men over the course of the novel. Briseis does appear in Homer’s Iliad, but she is given more attention on page by Miller, who portrays her as Patroclus’ closest friend.
Both students agree that Miller’s endeavor to retell a mythological story is worthwhile, in order to retroactively instill these often-told stories with LGBT representation. However, they also think that it’s important to continue to write original stories featuring LGBT characters. In doing this, they think, authors may speak more directly to the current political climate surrounding issues of sexuality and gender.
“I [don’t] think Miller set out to do anything other than what she did — retell,” said Claire. “We absolutely need writers willing and able to invest their time in original content creation that has political content and a critical voice, but I think there is also merit in brain-candy for LGBT readers.”
Schanilec added, “Queer people deserve to be able to see themselves now, facing their current problems along with feeling their modern treasures and communities — but they should also be able to [...] learn from their history on a personal, private level the way that straight cis white men can.” Schanilec, who is a queer-identified creative writer, expressed enthusiasm at the idea of LGBT stories of all sorts. “We should also have stories about queer people all over the world, at all different times, whether there’s proof of their existence or not. Let queer people time travel!”