Alcestis Books Historical fiction

Another lovely review from Open Letters Monthly

This is apparently the week of great in-depth reviews of Alcestis! (Not that I would object if it became, say, the month of in-depth great reviews. Or, hey, the year would work, too.) Finch Bronstein-Rasmussen at Open Letters Monthly wrote a beautiful review essay that ties the novel to Edith Hamilton’s version of the Persephone story and focuses on the primacy of the Alcestis/Persephone relationship in the book. I was particularly touched by this paragraph, which addresses the end of the novel:

Readers familiar with Miss Hamilton (or with the other source, some guy named Euripides) will know what to expect from the rest of the story: in the myth, Heracles comes upon the house of his friend Admetus deep in mourning, makes an ass of himself as usual, and to make amends, tromps down to the underworld intent of wrestling Hades for Alcestis, intent on bringing her back to the land of the living. In the ancient Greek plays of which Euripides was a master, the audience always knows the rest of the story – the genius of the writing arises from how skillfully the author can bend the path and pile on the ironies, so that the conclusion the audience knows is coming feels nevertheless strange or poignant when it arrives. The genius of Alcestis is that it flawlessly preserves this duality. In the underworld, surrounded by shades, fascinated by (and fascinating to) Persephone, Alcestis is on the verge of becoming more alive than she ever was in the daylight, so when we see Heracles lumbering through the drifting shades, intent on bringing her back to her feckless husband and her joyless life, we feel the exact opposite of what we might have expected: we don’t want this rescue to happen.

Writing about a myth places both reader and author in interesting positions — the skills required to retell an already-familiar story are slightly different from those required to create a believable new fiction, and readers expect different things from retellings, too. But it also means that the notion of “spoilers” becomes, as we say in grad school, “vexed.” Of course there are elements of the book that are unique to my version of Alcestis’s story, but can readers really be spoiled for them? In a retelling, the high-concept angle is the plot, in one sense. So I was very glad to read that this reviewer found the retelling effective not just as its own story but as a new version of the tale informed by the previous versions. In other words: yay!

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