I try not to respond to a book until I’ve given myself time to think about it. In some ways, I guess it’s a little weird; “first feeling is best” or whatever, and also, you usually know whether you like a book or not immediately after reading it. That said, it’s been almost a year since reading Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, and I still haven’t formally responded to it anywhere except on Twitter or in-person rants.
The thing about Song of Achilles is that, in a lot of ways, it’s important. There’s not a lot of YA lit out there staring LGBT characters, and I always want to see more diversity in the selection of books. That’s one reason why people told me to read it, and it’s one reason why people assumed I’d like it. The other reason people might have assumed I’d enjoy the book is because I suffer from perpetual affection towards the Classics, and I have a lizard named Achilles. Why wouldn’t I enjoy someone’s take on the Trojan War? Why wouldn’t I enjoy a retelling of the Iliad?
I’m really picky, is why.
There are things that Song of Achilles tries to do and I think that the attempt is admirable: Patroclus, who functions as the novel’s narrative voice as well as Achilles’ lover, dies before the end of the war, and that could have been a really interesting thing to happen. It kind of fell flat for me though, because the Patroclus Miller writes is boring.
That might sound mean, but let me explain where I’m coming from. The Patroclus I’m familiar with is a guy who was exiled for killing another person over a game of dice. He’s someone who was good enough at fighting in his own right that in order for Hector to even get close to him, Apollo had to undo the armor Patroclus stole from Achilles. I went into Song of Achilles with all the wrong expectations—but they’re expectations that someone who’s familiar with the story of the Iliad might have going in. I expected a Patroclus who does things. Unfortunately, Miller’s Patroclus doesn’t do much; the event that sends him into exile has made violence inherently repulsive to him, and the narrative itself feels sluggish.
One of my major issues with the prose itself had to do with that narrative voice. Song of Achilles took a while for me to actually finish in the first place, because its scope is ambitious—we’re talking about the course of someone’s childhood through early adulthood—and Miller makes an attempt to pad all of that into a book that doesn’t weight as much as a bowling ball. The thing is, a lot of the scenes the narrative describes are just that: descriptions. It took a long time for me to read this book because I kept getting bogged down being told how to pack a wound with poultice. Again. And again. Because Miller’s Patroclus, repulsed by violence but requiring proximity to the Great Hero Achilles, finds himself still involved in the Trojan War, but as a medic rather than a soldier. So much of the narrative feels passive, slow, and if I hadn’t been reading on a Kindle, I might have skipped ahead. There are some striking moments of something that could be neo-Romantic in nature, but those moments don’t make up for the how bored I was for the most part.
I also got a really strange feeling regarding the narrative’s treatment of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Famously, Plato mentions a debate between who is the “beloved” and who is the “lover” in Symposium, where Phaedrus, one of Socrates’ companions, makes the assertion that Achilles is beloved of Patroclus. While people may or may not have their preferences for which position they find themselves in when sex is involved, we’re at a point where there are more interesting things to talk about regarding relationships than who bottoms. Unfortunately, there are some stereotypes that come along with either, and Miller does something that’s not really as progressive as I think she might have thought she was being with the characters of Achilles and Patroclus. “Which one of you is the guy, and which is the girl?” Well, neither—but Patroclus is given traditionally feminine traits, from the aversion to violence, his position with women and as a healer rather than a warrior, and the passivity of his narrative voice and position within the plot itself. Achilles, of course, takes on the masculine role in Miller’s rendition of the relationship: while his beauty is noted several times, he’s known for his athletics, for being active, for his strength as a warrior. It’s something that makes me unhappy, because it’s a dynamic that I’ve seen too much before, and I was hoping for something different given the amount of praise Song of Achilles gets.
So I’m torn. On the one hand, I wanted to like this book a lot, in the same way I really wanted to like New York City when I went for the first time. I wanted to know what everyone else was talking about and enjoying, and I thought, well, I like these things, I want to see them done in an interesting way. Then I get to it—the book or the city—and I find everything underwhelming. Everyone else loved this book! And I just…didn’t. People call it action-packed, but it’s not, really—the action for the most part is peripheral to the actual experience that Patroclus describes. I can’t stop thinking about the poultice with its herbs. Thetis’ motivations—nor the motivations of any of the characters—make much sense. I want people to have the book available, because there aren’t a lot like it, but I also think that it’s insincere a lot of the time, and I don’t want this to be the only book available. There’s so much about this book that falls short that I wonder if the real reason why it’s so popular is because there’s no other alternative—and I worry that if anyone does try to try their own hand at retelling the Iliad, it’s going to be too frequently compared to this one in its inception, and that because now that it’s “been done,” if anyone else wants to try, they’ll be accused of copying Miller’s idea.
Overall, I’d give it a 2 out of 5 wounds packed with magic poultices.