Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: Alcestis by Katharine Beutner

AlcestisAlcestis by Katharine Beutner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like fairy tale and mythology retellings, in general. I've read a lot of really creative and interesting ones. I've also read a lot that detracted from the original story in its reimagining. I was hoping Alcestis was one of the former, but, unfortunately, it fell into the latter category.

The story of Alcestis in myth is one of wifely devotion. She so loved her husband that, when his death came, she volunteered to take his place. Heracles (aka Hercules, Herakles, and various combinations thereof) brought her back after three days. She spent her first three days back among the living not speaking a word. She went on to have a son and a daughter. We know nothing about the daughter, but the son fought in the Trojan War.

This book gives a new spin on the story, giving Alcestis a sister who died young, and a supreme loneliness. The elements of the story are there: Apollo's intervention in Admetus's successful wooing of Alcestis, his forgetting to sacrifice to Artemis and finding his bed full of snakes, Alcestis's giving up her life for him. Her motives in this, though, are to save herself the loss of honor thanks to his cowardice when faced with death. Love plays no part in her decision, and her gratitude for his kindness turns to disgust that he put her in this position.

The most interesting part of the story is where the author can make up events out of whole cloth. No one speaks of what happened to Alcestis in the underworld, so there's a lot of freedom in the narrative there. She falls in love with a goddess and looks for people she knows, most notably her sister, Hippothoe.

I would probably feel differently about this book if I'd bought the love story. But the courtship between Alcestis and Persephone consists of inscrutable conversations where nobody is capable of answering a direct question, and Alcestis watching her have sex with Hermes once. Persephone's seduction takes place over the course of several "you don't know the whole story about my marriage to Hermes" hooks, which pay off in the flattest and least surprising way I've ever heard that story retold. I read a sanitized children's version of the Persephone/Hades story that was more interesting than the scandalous truth Persephone teases Alcestis with. I could believe that Alcestis was infatuated and in lust with Persephone. A great love, worthy of longing and sighing after the goddess for the rest of her days? Not so much.

But then, Alcestis is sixteen years old. She calls herself a woman, and many regard her as an adult, but she has a teenager's sense of proportion.

Many aspects of the book fell flat for me, or seemed contradictory. One example of many is that Alcestis remarks she's heard about Zeus appearing as a swan to a woman. But Leda's encounter with Zeus has to come years and years after the events in this book, for Helen to be still young and beautiful when Alcestis's son is called off to besiege Troy as an old man. I suppose it could be implying that Zeus pulls this trick a lot, but it seemed like an odd detail to include, if it's not meant to evoke Leda.

And I never could wrap my mind around any of the male characters. Admetus goes to such lengths to win Alcestis's hand, but he has no room in his heart for her, because he's in love with a god. I can't tell if Hades really cares for Persephone, or if he doesn't care enough to bother arguing with her. Heracles seems terrified of Alcestis, except when he's ignoring her or acting the part of the perfect gentleman. Granted, Alcestis is the perspective character and she finds these men hard to understand, but their characterizations are inconsistent and contradictory.

I think I was supposed to feel that sense of epic sadness that comes from reading a Greek tragedy. Instead, I just felt tired at the end of this book. Another retelling that forces people through the steps because it's what they're supposed to do, with no sense these are real people living these stories. The writing isn't terrible, but I had absolutely no sense of the characters.

I listened to this book on audio, which may have colored my judgment. The narrator read in this breathless voice that sounded like she was trying to force the words out through tears. It was exhausting to listen to, and it made Alcestis sound a lot more uncertain and weaker than she's probably written. I wish I'd read a paper version, so I knew if that made any difference.


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