NOTE: I’m assuming a basic level of familiarity with Greek mythology. If the names and vocabulary are confusing, Google is your friend. Additionally, while “Elektra” and “Hecabe” are more commonly romanized as “Electra” and “Hecuba,” I have adhered to Saint’s spellings.
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Wow, thank god that’s over. If I had to listen to Elektra whining for one more chapter, I was going to bring the Furies down on her myself. (On the bright side, now I know not to waste any more money on Jennifer Saint’s books, so yay me, I guess?) I do have to admit that Elektra is orders of magnitude better than Ariadne, both in language and in storytelling, but then again Ariadne set the bar so low that I almost fainted with delight upon realizing that Elektra actually seems to have been proofread, or that Saint has mostly learned the difference between “may” and “might” in the intervening year between her two books, or both.
Set predominantly in Mycenae and Troy, Elektra is narrated in turns by Clytemnestra, the disgruntled wife of King Agamemnon of Mycenae and twin sister of Helen of Troy; Elektra, third daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon; and Cassandra, prophecy-ridden priestess of Apollo and daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecabe of Troy. Despite some misgivings, Clytemnestra marries Agamemnon after he seizes the Mycenaean throne from his uncle Thyestes, whom he kills in front of his young cousin Aegisthus. They go on to have four children – Iphigenia, Chrysothemis, Elektra, and Orestes – before Agamemnon sails off to wage war against the Trojans. This might have been fine if he hadn’t sacrificed Iphigenia to the gods on his way out the door, thus triggering a violent desire for revenge in his previously peaceful wife. During the ten years of his absence, Clytemnestra starts an affair with the adult Aegisthus, and together they plot to murder Agamemnon when he comes back. Their plot is successful, but in its aftermath Clytemnestra finds that her life has no purpose without the drive for justice, while Elektra treads the same vengeful path as her mother.
Across the Aegean, Cassandra devotes her life to serving Apollo out of an overwhelming desire to acquire the same prophetic powers that were granted to Hecabe. Apollo does grant her wish, but turns on her in a heartbeat when she rejects his advances. He chooses not to desecrate his temple by raping her body, but repeatedly rapes her mind over the next several years in the form of powerful, head-splitting prophecies that violate her in ways she never expected. Despite the demonstrable truth of her prophecies, nobody believes a word she says, and she is punished and ignored for her attempts to warn her countrymen of impending doom. Hell hath no fury like a man scorned, especially when that man is a god. Ostracized by all and labeled a madwoman even by her own family, Cassandra finds some refuge in the temple of Apollo in spite of the abuse he inflicts on her. Her fragile peace is shattered by the return of her younger brother Paris, and things quickly take the traditional turn for the worst. Following the sack of Troy, she is parceled off to Agamemnon as war booty and taken to Mycenae, where Clytemnestra reluctantly kills her out of mercy.
Meanwhile, Elektra spends ten years waiting for her father to come home from the war, only to catch the briefest glimpse of him before her mother murders him in the bath. As the only person in Mycenae who both remembers Agamemnon and genuinely mourns him, she cannot – or will not – understand why other people don’t like him. She marries her friend Georgios, an awfully well-meaning farmer whose father was loyal to Agamemnon (and who somehow never gets tired of her constant bitching), but leaves him in the dust when her single-minded obsession drives her to pressure Orestes into killing Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. Though she gets exactly what she wanted, she finds little satisfaction in her vengeance. After she and Orestes are purified of their crime, she marries his friend Pylades, and they set up house in an isolated area, where she later gives birth to a daughter. Her relationship with Pylades was abrupt, inexplicable, and very poorly developed, but, all the same, absolutely none of this was unexpected or even faintly surprising. As with Ariadne, Elektra is unswervingly faithful to its source material.
The problem is that none of Saint’s characters are particularly endearing. In both Elektra and Ariadne, every character is either weak, unmemorable, or completely unlikable. While Clytemnestra and Elektra have the most defined personalities, neither of them has any staying power. Their characters are built around an all-consuming desire for vengeance; when you take that away, there’s not much left over. After all the violence and anger and family drama, their narratives become a disappointingly repetitive echo of each other. Their final chapters are an endless list of grievances, of vengeances dissatisfying and lives made meaningless. I especially disliked Elektra, who gave me such a strong Phaedra vibe that it was almost impossible to look past it. As with Phaedra, she is hard-headed, self-absorbed, and infuriatingly narrow-minded. She convinces herself that Iphigenia’s sacrifice was a great honor and is unapologetically jealous of the Trojan women Agamemnon rapes, without ever having the grace to understand that these women all have a very different view of him. When Orestes returns to Sparta after a ten-year absence, she eagerly convinces him that matricide is okay and even necessary despite privately knowing that he will be tormented by the Furies. She sacrifices his sanity without turning a hair, and, though he later recovers, this would have sat better with me if she had suffered any sort of repercussion. And, yes, this is part and parcel of the original mythology, but this is one case where I feel like it wouldn’t have been the worst thing to give her just a little bit of remorse. It’s hard to get behind a character so completely lacking in self-awareness.
I was also disappointed with the portrayal of Helen, whose character is nebulous from start to finish. I have yet to read a retelling in which Helen is treated as anything other than a fame-seeking vamp, though this may be because every retelling I’ve read has shown Helen through the lens of another character. It seemed like Saint was on track to buck that trend with her Helen, but, after dancing around the question of Helen’s departure for most of the book, she abruptly announced that Helen did, in fact, wish to make her name known till the end of time. We are supposed to understand that the Greeks would eventually have attacked Troy anyway, and that Helen saw an opportunity to speed things along while also gaining immortal fame. Again, this is Clytemnestra’s interpretation of her supremely dissatisfying reunion with Helen, but it irks me. After all that effort to portray Helen as kind and thoughtful, her final meeting with Clytemnestra is a slap in the face. For the love of Zeus, give me one retelling in which she is neither helpless abductee nor scheming adulteress, because this is getting seriously old. Give me just one retelling that lets me love Helen. She can’t be all bad.
This, for me, is what separates Saint’s work from more skillful retellings, such as The Song of Achilles and Circe (Madeline Miller). It’s not that Miller doesn’t also have unlikable characters – Pyrrhus and Pasiphaë come to mind, and her Helen is purposefully blurry – but they are balanced by protagonists so lovable and so deeply relatable that I can’t help rooting for them, even when they’re wrong. The depth of Miller’s characters makes Saint’s characters more disappointing by comparison. They are, at best, angry cardboard cutouts who serve as vehicles for Saint’s picture-perfect reproductions of the original mythos. The strict adherence to the source material was definitely a choice, but I don’t see much point in a retelling that doesn’t do much more than regurgitate the same story I already know. Give me The Song of Achilles, which manages to be faithful to a story that’s been told time and time again while adding new dimensions to the characters. Give me Circe, which takes an overlooked character and gives her her own mind and story and heart. I would not have objected at all if Cassandra had followed her heart shortly before the sack of Troy, and gone out looking for a quiet farmhouse in which to spend the rest of her days. I don’t see any special reason she just had to stick around long enough for Clytemnestra to kill her.
In the end, the best that can be said of Saint’s current body of work is that it is precise. Ariadne and Elektra are soulless, uninspired, and almost tragically accurate. In a field awash with contemporary retellings, they don’t offer anything to distinguish themselves. The writing is average, the characters underdeveloped, the stories dismal. They aren’t retellings so much as almost word-for-word recitations. They read like they were intended for people who needed the stories rewritten in modern language, as if the original mythology is a footnote rather than a springboard. And that really is a pity.