The Song of Achilles

By Madeline Miller

(HarperCollins, $25.99, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

Making her debut as a novelist with a fine retelling of a classic story is Madeline Miller, who earned degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek from Brown University and studied adapting classical tales for the contemporary stage at the Yale School of Drama. She teaches Latin and Greek and lives in Cambridge, Mass.

What is this book about?

The story of the handsome demigod Achilles, a warrior hero of the Trojan War whose divine heritage could not prevent his doom, has been with us in various forms since Homer’s “Iliad.” Made nearly immortal by his mother, the nymph Thetis – save for his heel, which gave rise to the phrase “Achilles’ heel” as a metaphor for vulnerability – Achilles is a fighter but also a lover. That aspect, not always frankly dealt with in other re-tellings, is beautifully portrayed in Miller’s novelized version of the ancient legend.

Many versions of the story created some 3,000 years ago by the poet, Homer, have been created. This one presents it from the viewpoint of Achilles’ all-too-human best friend, fellow fighter and lover, Patroclus. Along with the battles between gods and mortals and Greeks vs. Trojans, it is the intense friendship of Achilles and Patroclus, and the consequences for Greece and Troy following the death of one partner that animates this book.

Why you’ll like it:

Reviewers are ecstatic about the poetic prose and moving romanticism of Miller’s book. Though the story is familiar, her refreshing version makes it feel new again, which is no mean feat. Time magazine calls it “Homer Erotic,” a pun that works well.

Miller’s retelling also brings to life many of the women in the story, such as Thetis, Briseis and Iphegenia, usually treated as minor characters.

In an interview by novelist Gregory Maguire, who wrote “Wicked,” Miller explains why she made this as much a love story as a war story:

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and in my case it was just dangerous enough to get me started. If I had stopped to ponder, I think I might have been too intimidated. But it helped that Patroclus is such an underdog—giving him voice felt like standing up for him. I had been intensely frustrated by a number of articles that kept side-stepping the love between him and Achilles, which to me felt so obviously at the story’s heart. So I wanted to set the record straight, as I saw it.”

What others are saying:

“Madeline Miller’s brilliant first novel…is a story of great, passionate love between Achilles and Patroclus….[R]ewriting the Western world’s first and greatest war novel is an awesome task to undertake. That she did it with such grace, style and suspense is astonishing,” says the Dallas Morning News.

Publishers Weekly says: “Following in Mary Renault’s footsteps and adding some surefooted steps of her own, Miller debuts with a novel that combines the poetic drama of “The Iliad” with a 21st-century understanding of war, sex, sexual politics, and Trojan War heroism. … [Miller]probes relationships Homer only hinted at. With language both evocative of her predecessors and fresh, and through familiar scenes that explore new territory, this first-time novelist masterfully brings to life an imaginative yet informed vision of ancient Greece featuring divinely human gods and larger-than-life mortals.”

 “Miller’s degrees in Latin and Greek as well as her passion for the theater and the history of the ancient world have given her the tools to create a masterly vision of the drama, valor, and tragedy of the Trojan War. Readers who loved Mary Renault’s epic novels will be thrilled with Miller’s portrayal of ancient Greece,” says Library Journal.

 “Wildly romantic [and] surprisingly suspenseful….[B]ringing those dark figures back to life, making them men again, and while she’s at it, us[ing] her passionate companion piece to “The Iliad” as a subtle swipe at today’s ongoing debate over gay marriage. Talk about updating the classics,” says Time.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has it on its New Books shelf.

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