Classic legends tend to be classics for a reason; there’s something in the story that’s engaging and appealing, and that captures our imagination for decades, centuries, even millennia. At the heart of many legends are women, but the classic version of these stories generally leave the women as ciphers, fodder for a reader’s projection of dreams and insecurities. Was Lizzie Borden a victim or a villain? Either way, can she be reduced to a nursery rhyme? Did Sleeping Beauty actually have any agency, or is she a prop caught between a curse and a savior? And what was really behind Circe’s seduction of Odysseus, beyond the temptress archetype? These three new books in this week’s book club update the legendary tales and give their women a voice.
1. Lizzie by Dawn Ius ($18): Lizzie Borden was accused and acquitted of the murder of her father and stepmother in a sensationalist 1893 trial that saw national attention. Here, Lizzie narrates her own story in a modern-day update. In this version, Lizzie has blackouts brought on by a combination of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome and her menstrual cycle; when she starts bleeding, she loses time and memory for up to several hours. There’s no known cure. Usually, Lizzie can track these events, but inexplicable things have been happening outside of the normal 30-day events.
Lizzie doesn’t know if she’s really been doing odd things like swapping all the salt and sugar at her family’s inn, or whether she’s being unjustly blamed by her evil stepmother Abigail, who hates her guts and considers her a budding psychopath. What she does know is that her life feels intolerable. She feels trapped at the bed and breakfast, which has almost no way to contact the outside world, for her rich and unpopular father’s safety. This makes her even more surprised when, on Christmas Eve, a girl named Bridget Sullivan shows up at the door.
“The redheaded female on the other side is tall and thin, with wild green eyes that seem to stare into my soul. A fluttering rises up from my stomach and gathers in my chest, circling my heart.” Bridget has been hired on as maid staff, and Lizzie, who is shy and has never had a relationship, falls hard. Meanwhile, her episodes are getting worse and her parents are getting more and more physically and emotionally abusive, while Bridget increasingly urges her to live her own life. Ius’ writing is visceral and unflinching, and, like Borden’s original story, not for the faint of heart. So, did Lizzie do it? Even the author admits, “I can’t answer that, even now.”
2. Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman ($27): In Malerman’s Wild West reworking of Sleeping Beauty, she’s named Carol Evers, and she wasn’t pricked by a spindle; instead, like Ius’ Lizzie, Carol has a little-known medical condition. Hers leads her to fall into lengthy comas that resemble the permanent sleep of death. “I’ve died before, John. Many times…The doctors, she said, had no name for her condition. But she’d come up with one of her own many years ago. Howltown…There’s no light in there, John. I can hear the world around me, but I can’t move. And the wind in there…it howls. So…Howltown. Pretty neat, huh?”
Not many people know about Carol’s condition, as she fears the reaction of the world at large. There’s her friend John Bowie, who’s now dead. And there’s her husband, Dwight. Carol told John about the comas out of fear for Dwight and for herself; if Dwight were to die while she was “falling,” nobody would know she was still alive. Carol might need a wider protective network than she thinks, though; John wasn’t the only person who secretly (or not-so-secretly) believed that Dwight married Carol for her money. And with John gone, Dwight doesn’t even have to kill her to get it. He just has to wait until she looks dead, then bury her alive.
Carol’s fears about being shunned for her condition are not unfounded; 20 years ago, her lover (later turned outlaw) James Moxie left, “unable to shoulder the burden of a woman who died so often.” When Carol collapses, though, and Dwight is unsurprisingly unlikely to reveal her secret, James is the only one who might know what’s really going on. Luckily, he sees the funeral announcement and begins the return journey. At the same time, Carol is no mere sleeping damsel in distress; able to hear and think while the world howls around her, she fights for survival, and only she can eventually break the “spell.” Because, “for a woman who had died many times, Carol was perhaps less afraid than most.”
3. Circe by Madeline Miller ($27): Miller’s second book retelling a Homeric legend (the first, The Song of Achilles, won an Orange Prize) tells the story of the witch who appears in a memorable episode of The Odyssey, turning Odysseus’ followers into pigs before shacking up with the man himself for a wine-soaked year of revelry. Here, however, Circe is not a chapter of someone else’s epic tale, but has her own story to tell.
“When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Circe is a nymph, created by the union of her mother Perse, and the Titan sun god Helios, but she turns out to be something more unique. Deemed imperfect and not worthy of particular attention, she eventually discovers her ability of witchcraft, different from the powers of the gods and capable of harming both gods and men. She takes both as lovers and is increasingly fascinated by the world of mortals after seeing her uncle Prometheus’ punishment for civilizing them: “You cannot know how frightened gods are of pain,” she says. “There is nothing more foreign to them, and so nothing they ache more deeply to see.”
She finds there are many pitfalls to being caught between mortals and gods, and belonging to neither group. The gods are threatened and jealous by her power (though Hermes becomes her lover), and Zeus banishes her to a deserted island. Mortals are also suspicious of her abilities. Miller’s story pushes Circe into the path of Daedalus, the Minotaur (she helps deliver him) and Medea, giving her an active role in much of mythological history. Her name may mean “hawk,” and Circe is not content to stay in a cage, instead embracing the wildness of a bird of prey.
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