Anila's Reviews > Alcestis

Alcestis by Katharine Beutner
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May 23, 11

bookshelves: first-reads, queer-stuff, reviewed, not-for-the-sensitive, favorite-2011-reads
Read from May 03 to 23, 2011

This book reminded me quite a bit of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Palace Of Illusions and that's good, because that book is what all myth retellings have to live up to in my mind.

Now, bear in mind that I'm not familiar with the original myth of Alcestis.

That being said, this book was gorgeous. The writing might seem overwrought to some readers, but I found it lyrical, visceral, and intense. Alcestis is very much a woman of her times and culture, not a feminist insert put there to challenge the world around her. And yet, even as she is quiet and passive, she is an intensely feminist narrator. She's a lot like Offred from The Handmaid's Tale, actually: while neither really speaks up or does much to break their bonds, their plain description of their lives is in and of itself subversive. Alcestis grows from sheltered girl to jaded wife, and the transition is elegant and a tiny bit chilling. When she goes to the underworld in her husband's place, it is not an emotional impulsive choice but a calculated decision, just this side of cold. It's almost suicide, actually.

The days she spends in the underworld have a dreamlike air to them, and the emotions she has for Persephone are equally hazy and strange. Persephone herself gave me the willies. She was so very inhuman it was terrifying; she was capricious, emotional, dishonest, and impulsive. She was cruel, sometimes without meaning to, sometimes just acting as she had learned from the other gods. I never doubted that she didn't play by mortal rules, and that was scary. While she was the most present member of the pantheon, her stories and the stories of humans showed the other gods to be just as inhuman. I've read a lot of reviews complaining that new Greek mythology-inspired novels whitewash the gods. This one certainly doesn't.

Reading Alcestis was an intense experience. Beutner's writing and voice drew me in, and her story was deeply emotional and beautiful. I loved, loved, loved that the conflict of Alcestis and Persephone's relationship was not that they were both women but that they were married women, and yet at the same time that Alcestis was aware of her husband's infidelity - that through her very complacency, not through speaking out, she highlighted the cultural misogyny to which she was subjected.

I received this book through the First Reads program and I'm so very glad I did.
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Reading Progress

05/03/2011 page 46
15.0% "So far, it feels like the Palace of Illusions - not that Alcestis is a rip-off, but that they have the same mythic undertones and gorgeous writing. It maaaaaaay be as good as Palace of Illusions, which is the highest praise I can give any retelling. Either way, I'm liking it."
05/22/2011 page 130
43.0% "Wow. Admetus is a total asshole."

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