Jennifer Saint

NOTE: I’m assuming a basic level of familiarity with Greek mythology. I’m not explaining what the Minotaur is or drawing an Olympian family tree. If the names and vocabulary are confusing, Google is your friend.

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

Well that sucked. (I feel like I should note that a large part of this is not really the author’s fault, but it also kind of is.) I think the trouble is that I went into this expecting something inventive, such as Madeline Miller’s incomparable Circe, but instead found a fairly straightforward retelling of the stories of Ariadne and Phaedra of Crete. And I have to give Saint her due: she is grimly faithful to the original mythology in almost every aspect of the story. The thing is, because she chose this particular myth, and because she also chose not to modify the ending, there was only so much she could do with it, and the end result doesn’t really seem to fit with the loftiness of the cover blurb.

Born in Crete to King Minos and Queen Pasiphaë, Ariadne is raised in wealth and comfort alongside her younger sister, Phaedra, and several other siblings. Her childhood is abruptly derailed when Poseidon brainwashes Pasiphaë into having sex with a bull, which results in the birth of the Minotaur. Ariadne tries her best to love her half-brother, but finds this increasingly difficult as the Minotaur grows more dangerous. After he breaks out of his pen, the Minotaur is imprisoned in a labyrinth beneath the palace, and every year feeds on the fourteen children sent by the city of Athens as payment for the death of Ariadne’s brother Androgeos. In the third year of its indemnity, Athens sends fourteen children as usual, but this time their number includes Theseus, the boastful crown prince of Athens. Ariadne and Phaedra both fall head over heels in love with him, and they give him what he needs to kill the Minotaur and then escape with the uneaten tributes. Theseus in turn shows his gratitude by abandoning both girls; Phaedra is left on Crete, while Ariadne is marooned on the uninhabited island of Naxos. She is on the point of starvation when Dionysus unexpectedly arrives on her doorstep and befriends her. She initially agrees to be his resident priestess, but their relationship evolves, and eventually they marry. Over the next fifteen years, she gives birth to five sons while Dionysus goes out on regular voyages to court new followers. Her life seems like paradise for a while, but as time goes on she becomes increasingly uncomfortable with Dionysus’s rapidly expanding cult and growing taste for violence.

Things finally come to a head when Phaedra, who had believed Ariadne dead for several years, learns that she is in fact alive and wedded to a god. In the intervening years, Phaedra has married Theseus, to whom her brother Deucalion betrothed her as a peace offering. She has two sons but is indifferent towards them, and is exhausted and fed up from the combined demands of motherhood, Theseus, and running the city. Her situation worsens when she falls hard for Hippolytus, Theseus’s bastard son, conceived when Theseus raped the Amazon queen Hippolyta. Following an unproductive visit to Naxos, during which Ariadne begs her to keep her feelings for Hippolytus to herself, Phaedra returns to Athens and declares her love, but is shocked when Hippolytus rejects her. Racked with terror and self-loathing, she hangs herself before Theseus can find out that she propositioned her own stepson. Theseus concludes that Hippolytus raped Phaedra and calls upon Poseidon in a rage, killing Hippolytus with a giant wave despite Ariadne’s attempts to intervene.

In the wake of Phaedra’s death and Hippolytus’s murder, Ariadne returns heartbroken to Naxos, but recovers a bit of her hope when Dionysus invites her to visit his half-brother Perseus in Argos. Her hopes are shattered yet again when she learns that the purpose of Dionysus’s visit is to force Perseus to allow the women of Argos to join Dionysus’s cult. Dionysus attempts to convert the women by force, but it goes terribly wrong and results in the entire city of Argos declaring war on him. Furious with Dionysus’s vanity and terrified for the safety of her children, Ariadne tells him never to return to Naxos, then tries to beg mercy from Perseus. Before she can, she accidentally catches sight of Medusa’s head, which is fixed to Perseus’s shield, and is turned to stone. Dionysus turns her into a star, and she watches from the heavens as her children grow up and Dionysus takes his seat on Mount Olympus.

The best thing I can say about this book is that it is short. Clocking in at just over 300 pages, it spared me from having to slog through another 100 or so pages of Ariadne being ineffectually angry. The writing is dull and reads like a history lecture in places. I remember almost nothing about the prose, except that Saint very clearly does not know the difference between “may” and “might,” or “lay” and “laid.” Neither does her proofreader, though based on the evidence it seems generous to assume that there was a proofreader at all. I also found it difficult to track the passage of time throughout the book, because it keeps cutting back and forth between Ariadne and Phaedra during seemingly different periods of time with only the vaguest references to weeks or months or years passing before they reunite. It could be five years, or it could be ten. Later it turns out that the actual number is fifteen.

In general I’m struggling to find the point of this story, because it doesn’t reinvent any wheels. Unlike Circe, which sent an overlooked goddess on a quest to right the wrongs she had previously done, Ariadne doesn’t build on the original mythology. The book is an unornamented retelling of a very dismal story. There’s nothing particularly unique or surprising in Ariadne’s observations on the relationship between gods and women; gods fight and women suffer, and that’s the way it’s always been. Gods are children, yes, yes, we’ve heard this all before. Yes, women consistently bear the consequences for the glory of men – we’ve heard that too. This is a fairly standard feature of Greek mythology. Even though Ariadne takes pains to spell this out, she doesn’t offer any solutions or add anything new to the conversation, or even make herself known. She remains, as always, the dirty little secret in Theseus’s best-known feat.

To be completely fair, it is very difficult to balance originality with faithfulness to the original myths, which have been retold more times than anyone can count. I could have forgiven the lack of new material, but the problem is that Ariadne doesn’t do anything. She has exactly zero impact on the people around her, which – for a book that claims to blaze a new trail for the forgotten women of Greek mythology – is not a good look. Her greatest success is in helping Theseus to victory, but it’s straight downhill from there. She tries to talk Phaedra out of propositioning Hippolytus, and fails. She tries to stop Theseus from killing Hippolytus, and fails. She tries to rein in Dionysus’s violence, and fails. Are we noticing a pattern here? She doesn’t even manage to beg for Perseus’s mercy because, you know, Medusa head. Despite the extravagant claims on the dust jacket, she has nothing of her own. Everything she does is done in the context of another character. She fulfills her role in Theseus’s story, and then is neatly written out of it when he fucks off to Athens without her. She is part of Dionysus’s life for a few years, but falls out of that story as well when he begins to grow away from her. Her five sons, none of whom I can name off the top of my head, are barely mentioned and play no role in her narrative. They’re just kind of there. Like their mother, they don’t do anything.

I ran into the same problem with Phaedra, who is somehow more active than Ariadne (in that she keeps herself busy running Athens) without ever striking off on her own. I don’t count the thing with Hippolytus because, even though it was something she was trying to do for herself, her plan was so dependent on dragging a man along. I could probably fill a book talking about how much I don’t like Phaedra, but that’s not the purpose of this review, so suffice it to say that she’s fucking annoying. I disliked her from the moment she sprang out of nowhere and slammed an iron club into the ground during a private conversation between Ariadne and Theseus, and the rest of the book did nothing to change my mind. I don’t fault her for her inability to connect with her children; if anything, that actually made me sympathize with her, especially as she seems to suffer from some pretty serious postpartum depression. My opinion of her improved when she was running Athens behind Theseus’s back (of which I do approve), but then there was the whole Hippolytus arc, during which she turned out to be stubborn, thoughtless, self-righteous, and completely incapable of listening to reason. She was clearly supposed to be spunky and cute, but her part of the story was neither compelling nor particularly sympathetic, and I really did not connect with her.

Overall, this book just seems like 300 pages of pointless rage. Ariadne is continually angry but unable to effect change, while Phaedra remains as boneheaded at twenty-eight as she was at thirteen. Rage can move mountains, but in this case it was aimless, misdirected, and so very dissatisfying. There’s no purpose to anything these characters do. They mostly keep to their respective spheres, alone with their anger, and never think to use it as a weapon. What wonders could we have seen if Ariadne and Phaedra had broken mythology and banded together, taken over Naxos, maybe even found a way to bring their husbands’ ambitions to heel? I don’t know. And I never will.