Jennifer Saint penned a lovely, if depressing, novel in Ariadne. It will definitely appeal to the same audience that loved Madeline Miller’s Circe. However, there was some magic imbued into Miller’s work, some fierce beauty behind the pain, that wasn’t present in this novel. It felt like viewing a work of art through a fog instead of clear glass. While it was a very well written mythological retelling, I couldn’t quite love it.
Ariadne as a character drove me crazy. Her responses and reactions were realistic for a girl her age, but I kept wanting to shake her. But I have to confess that she grew. However, I found her strength as a character far overshadowed, at least in the first half of the novel, by that of her sister, Phedré. Here is a different kind of strong female character, and I very much respected her mind and her ability to make a life for herself out of a situation she would have changed if given the chance. At least, that’s who she is in the first half of the book. There was a lot of character development in all of the predominant characters in this novel, but not all of, or even most of, those changes were good.
Saint did an incredible job shining light on the failings of heroic tales: the heroes themselves. When the heroes tell their own stories, who can expect them to not embellish their victories and breeze past their losses? Who would not expect them to emphasize their attributes and minimize their failings? To compare it to a tapestry, seeing a hero’s story from the underside, where the knots and mistakes are visible, was refreshing. I took some kind of fierce, illicit joy in seeing Theseus’s flaws and weaknesses. Here he was humanized, and not in a good way.
Ariadne’s story also breathed a lot of depth and dimension into a god of the pantheon I often overlook: Dionysus. He was also humanized in this novel, as well, but in a much more positive way than his heroic, mortal counterpart. But later in the story we are shown how, even though gods don’t age, they can definitely change, even over the short course of a human lifetime.
The narrative is intensely feminist. I enjoyed seeing Dionysus as one of the rare gods who fostered the rebellious spirit beating in the hearts of the women who sought out his cult, though much had changed by the end of the novel. There was a lot of commentary on the treatment of women during Ariadne’s time, as well as many examples proving how wrong men were when they shrugged said women off as “the weaker sex.”
This was a good story, but it was incredibly tragic. Which is to be expected from anything inspired by Greek mythology, I suppose. It’s not a canon known for its happy endings, after all. All of the positive attributes I could find in the cast of characters had more or less vanished by the close of the novel. There was nothing about this book that made me feel anything good. It was lovely, and sad, and well written, but it was terribly depressing for so short a work. Was it a book worth reading? Absolutely. Will I read it again, though? Unlikely.
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