A happy, happy belated book birthday to a fascinating retelling! I am delighted to be kicking off the publication celebration with my review.
“It was the women, always the women, be they helpless serving girls or princesses, who paid the price. Cursed to roam the land without refuge, transformed into a shambling bear or lowing cow, or burned to ashes by the vengeful white armed goddess.”Jennifer Saint, Ariadne
When I was a child, scrambling to devour every Greek Mythology book in my tiny elementary school library, I fell in love with the sweeping tales of romance, magic, and the glorious, god-touched heroes at their core. Odysseus, Achilles, Theseus. Men who defied convention, who stood up to the unshakeable might of the gods. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to realize a pattern: Io, turned into a cow by the wrath of Hera. Persephone, kidnapped and dragged beneath the earth. Andromeda, chained to a rock and left to be consumed by the sea monster, Cetus. Jennifer Saint’s novel plucks at this discordant feeling, teasing apart the threads of myth to find the dark commonalities among them, with few stories as reflective of these broader themes as the plight of the eponymous Ariadne.
“What the gods liked was ferocity, savagery, the snarl and the bite and the fear. Always, always the fear, the naked edge of it rising from the altars, the high note of it in the muttered prayers and praise we sent heavenward, the deep, primal taste of it when we raised the knife above the sacrificial offering.”Jennifer Saint, Ariadne
At its core, Aridane is a grim but powerful tale about the trauma of mythological womanhood and the unstable dichotomy between hero, god, and monster. It shifts the perspective away from the men who dominate historical epics, and similar to Madeline Miller’s Circe, shines a light on the women most maligned by their stories. I include the quote above not only to highlight Saint’s brilliant prose, but also to praise the crackling aura of anxiety which pervades the novel, as both Ariadne and Phaedra’s stories spiral closer and closer to a conclusion that is hundreds of years foregone. Saint is a dexterous wielder of tension: it takes talent to balance the plot on the edge of a knife, leaving me straining for understanding and closure even as I know how the story ends.
While I enjoyed the unique spin on Ariadne’s tale, the overall familiarity of it meant that I found my attention getting caught on the more minor mentions of well-known women from other myths: Scylla, Medusa, Pasiphaë. In particular, I was transfixed by the violence of their monstrous transformations (directly in Scylla and Medusa’s case) and indirectly (in Pasiphaë’s case) laid bare as the whims of cruel machinations beyond their control. So often women in myth are divided into monsters and victims – the former being a punishment for “bad” women, and the latter considered a tragedy befalling the “good” ones, with both labels stripping them viciously of their agency. Saint draws a bead on this concept brilliantly as Ariadne struggles to make decisions that will save her from either categorization, ultimately culminating in one final act of instrumentality that leads to her demise.
I was nervous about how Saint would approach Phaedra’s myth, which typically reads as disturbing at best and reprehensible at worst, but Saint did an excellent job of tactfully shifting the original plot and placing her character into the broader context of the mythology, thus bringing a deeper level of tragedy to her delusions. Phaedra’s relationship with Ariadne, too, was given more depth, as the pair struggle to escape the trauma of their upbringing and connect despite the ever-widening gulf between them. For me, their fallout was perhaps the biggest tragedy of the story, as the dark actions of the men around them slowly chip away at their once unshakeable bond.
Jennifer Saint has drawn the curtain back from the shining heroes of my youth, revealing the cruelty lurking within them and giving life and shape to them women languishing in the shadows beyond. This intricate tale will frighten as readily as it will mesmerize, and those who enjoyed Circe, A Thousand Ships, or the Silence of the Girls will find novelty and wisdom in this story as well.