Category Archives: 2012 Fiction

The Song of Madeline Miller

Last spring I listened to The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (read by Frazer Douglas) and was enchanted. Normally I delete the books I listen to once I’m done. I just can’t bear to let this one go. I know I’ll listen again. I’m a classics junkie–I studied Greek and Roman history, literature, and art in college and was one of those kids who thought the Greek and Roman myths were the best stories ever told. Miller’s retelling of the story of Achilles and Patroclus had me riveted from  beginning to end. When I had the chance last week to hear Miller speak at the Center for Fiction in NY not even Achilles’ scary goddess mother Thetis could have kept me from going. I had the chance to ask a question about how she managed to create such a frightening character as Thetis and also to tell her how much I enjoyed the book.

Miller retells the story from Patroclus’ point of view and in her hands it becomes a heartbreaking love story. Knowing  how it ends doesn’t at all detract from the beguiling pleasures of the trip. Miller takes the mythological and Homeric material and shapes it to her own ends. The way she gives personality and motivation to characters like Thetis, Chiron and Briseis, for example, only heightens the tension of her narrative.

At the Center for Fiction, Miller talked about the process of writing the novel, how she “set the moment of Patroclus’ death on my horizon and wrote toward it.” She spoke about some of the decisions she struggled with: whether to include the gods and how to end the novel after Patroclus’ death. She talked about how “generous” the Homeric material is, how much it gives a writer to work with and how she often returned to the Iliad for inspiration.

In the first chapter of The Song of Achilles, Patroclus, then a young boy, is sent off to a gathering of the Greek kings, where Helen is asked to choose a husband. One of the kings, as yet unidentified, begins to speak. Listening to it, I gasped in recognition: the speaker was Odysseus, there was no doubt. At that point I knew I was in for a great listening experience. Miller told me that she’s working on a novel about Odysseus; I’ll be watching for it.

Just a note about the audio version–it was wonderful. The reader, Frazer Douglas, creates voices and personalities for all the characters. His tour de force is Thetis, Achilles’ mother, a minor goddess. Even a minor goddess is terrifying to mortals, and Douglas had me scared each time the angry and vengeful Thetis appeared. I’m not quite sure how he did it, but I was truly frightened. At the Center for Fiction, Miller talked about the power of the gods, how encountering a god was never a good thing for a mortal  and how she tried to write that into Thetis’ character. After  her talk, I told her that I thought she’d be happy with the way Douglas portrayed Thetis.

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller

With this book I struck gold–an absorbing historical mystery in the English country house genre with great characters and atmosphere. It takes place just after World War I in Wiltshire, at a crumbling old manor house with the spooky name of Easton Deadall. The story is told from the point of view of Laurence Bartram, a World War I veteran and architectural  historian whose specialty is church architecture. Bartram’s been called in by an architect friend to consult on the creation of a maze to honor the village men who died in the Great War  and on the restoration of the old church on the property.

Right away Bartram’s drawn into the family tragedy: the disappearance, 13 years earlier, of 5-year old Kitty Easton, daughter of  Lydia, widowed owner of the manor. Kitty’s unsolved disappearance is still fresh and wounding; the Easton family is riven with subterranean anger and jealousies. Bartram’s own life is haunted by the loss of his wife and unborn child and he’s suffering from the aftereffects of his horrific trench warfare experiences in France. The spectre of the war hangs over the novel–almost all the village men were killed in a single battle in France, leaving the village in the hands of grief-stricken women and men too old or unable to fight.

In good country house mystery tradition, there’s plenty of intrigue, gossip, and secrets (personal and architectural) revealed, as well as dead bodies. I found that  many of the characters stepped off the page: besides Bartram, the architect William Bolitho and his wife Eleanor were especially compelling. Speller has all the elements right. If you’re not entirely clear on the outlines of the country house mystery, there’s a good explanation here. This is the second Laurence Bartram mystery–I’m eager now to read the first one, The Return of Captain John Emmett.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

This book was well-reviewed so I was looking forward to reading it. It’s really a young adult book.I’m sure the publisher was hoping for a bigger market. It’s told from the point of view of a 14-year old girl about her conflict with her 16 year old sister who’s jealous of the younger one’s relationship with their uncle Finn, an artist who died of AIDS. Each sister is jealous of the other, each one thinks the other is more talented, loved, etc until a crisis reveals…well, you get the idea. Not enough depth for me and I thought this was a story that’s been told (too) many times. The PW reviewer, while praising the book, wrote: “moral conflicts that resolve themselves too easily and characters nursing hearts of gold.” For me, that’s a good characterization.