20 Books of Summer 2022: Book 4
This may be an unpopular opinion, but Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles is a lukewarm rehashing of The Iliad, devoid of the spark and creativity that Miller showed in Circe. As I wrote in that review, I enjoy retellings of myths. I don’t feel especially attached to any particular version, and new twists and angles on established characters are a fun way to keep old stories fresh. Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles share a common theme. In Circe, the titular character is a side character from Homer’s Odyssey and Miller flipped the old narrative on its head: Circe becomes a main character with her own motives and passions and story arc. The Song of Achilles follows the same initial premise, this time with a side character from The Iliad, but the narrator, Patroclus, quickly becomes the least interesting character in his own story.
Patroclus was Achilles’ longtime companion, and much has been written that The Iliad’s narrative makes more sense if they were also romantic partners. Sadly for Patroclus, his best-known plot point in The Iliad is when he impersonates Achilles in battle, which leads to his death. It’s a sad story, and even more sad if they were lovers because that would stack another layer of grief and loss on top of Achilles’ famous wrath. So, from here, I thought Miller would accomplish what she did in Circe: We know Patroclus will die in the war, but before that happens there will be all kinds of fabulous world building, character development, and nods to interesting bits of mythology—but no. Instead, the book is composed of the most predictable plot points: Patroclus and Achilles meet, they study together, and they go to war.
Surprisingly, the most interesting part of the book is when Patroclus is a child, before he meets Achilles. This is the only part of the story that has an air of unpredictability—if Patroclus’ exile is mentioned in The Iliad or other sources, I’d forgotten it. It’s also interesting because once Patroclus meets Achilles, a high percentage of the word count is spent on Achilles’ attractive features. The first comparison to mind is how Bella keeps harping on Edward’s perfect face in Twilight. I cringe to make the comparison since Miller is an infinitely better writer than Meyer, but the descriptions of Achilles’ features become tiresome. They bog down conversation between characters and slow the action because not only is Achilles’ speech described, but so are the actions of his face, eyes, hair, skin, muscles, tendons, and feet. Long litanies of physical details are a big reason why I’m not keen on the romance genre in general.
Achilles’ beauty also intrudes into the more violent, wartime scenes, which is jarring:
He was a marvel, shaft after shaft flying from him, spears that he wrenched easily from broken bodies on the ground to toss at new targets. Again and again I saw his wrist twist, exposing its pale underside, those flute-like bones thrusting elegantly forward. My spear sagged forgotten to the ground as I watched. I could not even see the ugliness of death anymore, the brains, the shattered bones that later I would wash from my skin and hair. All I saw was his beauty, his singing limbs, the quick flickering of his feet. (239)
This says something about the characters, which is a win, but Miller’s pretty prose clashes with its wartime setting in the second half of the novel. I was also disappointed that Patroclus lacks the physical prowess that he has in The Iliad, where he racks up a shocking body count. When he puts on Achilles’ armor to lead Achilles’ men, he pushes the Trojans back nearly to the city gates and kills one of Zeus’ sons, Sarpedon. In The Iliad, Patroclus throws a spear through Sarpedon’s armor and Sarpedon is killed when Patroclus pulls the spear from his body. In Miller’s version, Patroclus’ throw can’t penetrate armor, but the blow knocks Sarpedon back a step which unbalances his chariot and causes him to fall and break his neck. Same result, but different tone. And the relatively little strength that Patroclus has isn’t attributed to him, but to Achilles’ armor and influence:
Perhaps it was the armor, molding me. Perhaps it was the years of watching him. But the position my shoulder found was not the old wobbling awkwardness. It was higher, stronger, a perfect balance. And then, before I could think about what I did, I threw—a long straight spiral into the breast of a Trojan. (328)
I said that I’m fine with the idea that Miller might make changes, but this change really cheapens Patroclus’ character. It seems like she reduced his martial skills specifically so he could sit back in ever increasing adoration of Achilles. Why can’t they be two warriors in love? Why engage in that annoying romance/YA trope of making one party fawn endlessly over the other and be rescued? And given that this is a gay relationship, Miller risks the stereotype of portraying one person in the relationship as traditionally “masculine” while casting the other as more “feminine.” Patroclus’ skills are so reduced that before he impersonates Achilles, he “[does] not kill anyone, or even attempt to.” (239) After a while, he’s exhausted from pacing around before realizing that he never faced a deadly encounter because “I always seemed to be in a lull, a strange pocket of emptiness into which no man came, and I was never threatened.” (239) Achilles creates this pocket of safety with his martial talents since he’s a literal demigod. Miller moves Patroclus off the battlefield as he becomes a talented medic, but it’s too little too late.
I wonder if Patroclus muses endlessly on Achilles’ pretty face because his personality is rubbish—entitled at worst, privileged and out of touch at best. The more I think about this book, the less I like it. If I’d known it would read so much like a romance, it wouldn’t have made my TBR. There’s a difference between books featuring romance as opposed to books that are romance novels. If The Song of Achilles were the former, I’d have liked it more. I feel a trifle bad for writing off romance novels because I try not to be the sort of reader to discount entire genres; good books can come from anywhere. My chief issue with romance novels is that when a relationship becomes the focal point of a book, that book’s main action/conflict is usually an unhealthy amount of relationship drama and codependence. If the characters truly feel three-dimensional, it’s like watching a friend go through a needlessly difficult relationship. Where’s the joy in that?
Overall: 2.5 (out of 5.0) I know I’m the odd one out in not liking this book, but romance is never going to be my thing. The book picks up a little towards the end when Patroclus is given things to do other than admire Achilles, but it’s not enough. By the time a book makes me think “this reminds me of Twilight,” it’s not going to rank highly. (Miller’s prose really is lovely, though.)
Image credit: Goodreads
20 Books of Summer 2022
- A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie
- The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
- Sphere by Michael Crichton
Read, review coming soon
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- The Appointment by Herta Müller
- The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin
- A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard
Unread, review coming later
- Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
- Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
- The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
- Human Acts by Han Kang
- The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
- Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
- The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
- The Time Machine by H.G. Wells