The Short Version: The story of Achilles, as told from the perspective of his friend and lover, Patroclus. We meet the boys as children and follow the inevitable mythic path towards Troy and their eventual deaths.
The Review: Certain stories live forever. No matter how many times we hear the story of the Trojan War, we know with absolutely certainty that we will hear it again. The Odyssey is perhaps the only more malleable and re-tellable story in Western history (see: The Lost Books of The Odyssey) – and, for my money, is the better story overall. But that’s not the point, because Achilles does not factor into that tale: his ends on the shores of Troy.
Much speculation has been given to whether or not Achilles was gay. This is a big deal nowadays, for many reasons, and I’ll be honest: it’s aggravating. Ancient Greece (the “Ancient” world in general) had different standards than our “Modern” world – men loved other men and it wasn’t a thing. It just… was. Does Achilles being a homosexual change the way you feel about Achilles or homosexuals? I suppose there is something to be said for it – if, for example, some intolerant Republican were to suddenly see that one of the most incredible paragons of masculinity was gay and no one cared, I woud hope that they might gain some tolerance from the knowledge. But it’s unlikely, I’d think.
So then: we know that the basic story holds up and the premise is probably, in some way, true. All that’s left from that point is the writing itself – and the book won The Orange Prize this past year. One can then safely assume that it was quite good writing, right? ….so then why do I feel rather lukewarm about the whole thing?
I think the problem is that Madeline Miller managed to take an inherently exciting time period (show me someone who does not have fondest memories of being a kid and having even a brief obsession with the worlds of Ancient Greece and Rome and Egypt – you can’t, I’m sure of it. We all love that stuff.) and turn it into something that feels so fluffy and weightless. Sure, there’s a whole lot of blood and gore, all of it depicted with precision language: spears pierce throats, arrows burst through flesh, etc etc. But it all happens without any kind of stakes at all. We know how the story ends, but that puts the onus on the author: they must make us care, even though we’ve had the spoilers for years. And I simply never did.
The New York Times review of the book makes an excellent (if snarky) point that the first section of the novel, Patroclus’ childhood and early years with Achilles, feels like a Judy Blume novel. The Times said that. And I couldn’t stop thinking it as I read that first section, because it’s so true. Patroclus is teased and ostracized and it’s only after he befriends Achilles that he begins to accept himself and grow! It’s every high school novel ever. As a result, the rest of the novel is tainted, I think. I never took Achilles or Patroclus seriously – and when Achilles throws the most epic of tantrums during the war, refusing to fight, he looked like a spoiled brat stamping his feet. His reasons (true though they might have been) rang hollow. I never felt like either of them developed into real people, because they were stuck being these high school kids – there was too much of a modern sensibility stuck under the surface for me to believe in them.
The most interesting character in the book, I’d actually like to say, was Odysseus. Not sure if that was by accident or because, as I mentioned earlier, his story is perhaps the most interesting. He struck me as being played by Christoph Waltz in this iteration, specifically the Waltz of Inglourious Basterds. Every time he showed up, being good old Wily Odysseus, I was more engaged – because his character was much more distinct and alive than anyone else around him. Even the appearance of such hypothetically interesting characters as centaurs and gods – because this is a mythic version of the story, by the way, and not a realistic one – pale in comparison to Odysseus. Everyone else, again, feels like they are modern characters playing at being old.
Rating: 3 out of 5. The story is inherently interesting. And this is, yes, a ‘new’ take on the myth. The love between Achilles and Patroclus rings clear and true, but their story (as told here) feels altogether too commercial, too modern, and too blandly written for me to really appreciate this book beyond it having been a modest distraction while waiting for an audition all day yesterday. It is just a fine read – nothing extraordinary, nothing that would’ve garnered my attention had it not been boosted by plaudits. In Tournament of Books terms, I’ll bet it makes it out of the first round but gets knocked out by a powerhouse shortly thereafter.