Whitaker's Reviews > The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
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Jul 03, 12

bookshelves: contemporary-fiction, e-book, 2012-read, greece
Read from June 10 to 18, 2012

*This review is dedicated to Kelly without whose question I would not have thought so hard about why I loved this book.


Miller has called this book “The Song of Achilles”. The title could refer to a song sung by Achilles. It could also refer to a song sung about Achilles. This double meaning is significant as the book retells the story of the Illiad but with a very different focus. The title is significant too because it deliberately recalls the start of the Illiad: “Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles Peleus’ son”. However, instead of telling us of the wrath of Achilles, it tells us of his softer side: his love or rather his loves—Patroclus and music.

To call the story “The Song of Achilles” is, to some extent, misleading, because it is also the song of Patroclus with the same double meaning: a song sung by Patroclus and a song about Patroclus. For the very heart of the book is the love between Patroclus and Achilles. Told by Patroclus from the first person perspective, the question that haunts us right from the start is, “How is Miller going to be able to keep this up once Patroclus dies?” She does, and impressively, presents not simply a perfectly good way to explain that but to make that explanation a crucial part of her story.

The other question that is asked, not just by us but by the characters as well, is, “Why Patroclus?” Why of all the young men that Achilles has around him does he choose the awkward, weak exile? The most moving thing about this book is that it proceeds to show us why.

Achilles’ answer, almost too glib, is, “Because he’s surprising.” But the real answer, or at least the answer that Miller gives us, is that Patroclus cares, and cares deeply, about other people. It is this that makes him surprising: a man who cares about others in a world of greed and realpolitik where men are, first and foremost, killing machines, and Achilles the best of them all. And it is this care for other people that ultimately triggers the story’s denouement: Achilles' selecting of Breisis, the theft of Breisis by Agamemnon, Achilles’ sulking, Patroclus’ going to war in Achilles’ armour are all explained within that context, arising from and connected to this deep sense of love and responsibility that Patroclus feels for other people’s suffering and his desire to ease it.

It is significant that the only other show of love by a man in this book is that of Odysseus for Penelope. His love for her is presented to us several times throughout the book and at a crucial scene at the end. Odysseus, of course, leaves the tale of the Illiad and becomes the hero of his own story, The Odyssey. That tale is, in its own way, a story of love as Odysseus struggles to return home to Ithaca and to Penelope. And through Miller’s tale, so too does the Illiad become—finally—a story of love: the love of Achilles and Patroclus and how they each struggled to keep that love alive. For that, her story deserves to be read and loved too in its turn.
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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly So you'd say this one is worth it? I keep reaching for it at the store, but the mixed reviews keep putting me off finally taking the plunge.


message 2: by Whitaker (last edited Jun 27, 2012 07:00PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Whitaker Kelly wrote: "So you'd say this one is worth it? I keep reaching for it at the store, but the mixed reviews keep putting me off finally taking the plunge."

I took a look at the various reviews. The points raised are largely valid. It's a question of whether the minuses irk you more than the pluses. For me, it took off once we got to Troy (about halfway through). Before that, it felt like a lot of mooning and insecurity.

The writing was pretty good, but has that "creative writing course" feel about it: I get the sense that all these first time writers go to these courses and get fed the same way to write: lots of metaphors, reflection, and thinking. Kinda like this (my own attempt at parody): "The sun hung heavy in the sky, a crimson wax seal on the promise I had made. My thoughts were in turmoil..." Miller is much better than that, but yeah, it can have that feel to it.

I thought she did a pretty good job of humanising the characters, especially Patroclus once he starts to get a spine. My immediate reaction after finishing was, "I want read the Illiad now," which I guess is a pretty good recommendation of this book.


message 3: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly Wow I am so honored to get such a thoughtful, wonderful response from you about this. Thank you! I'm sorry I'm just seeing it now... apparently GR doesn't notify me about comments if I make them off the main page rather than on the review page itself, I don't know what's up with that. But anyways! I feel like I have a great, nuanced view of the emotional feel of the novel now. I particularly liked your comments above about Patroclus. It does irritate me when authors tell me the whole book how special someone is but fail to demonstrate it, so at least she's backing up the focus on their love story and why its worth looking at.

As long as the writing isn't Twilight levels of SPESHULLL STARING LURRRVVEE then I think I can deal with it. I haven't read either of the two epics, only bits of each, so this might be a good way in. Thanks again!


Whitaker Well, I hope that if you do pick it up that you'll enjoy it. There's always this little fear of disappointing a friend.


message 5: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly Oh no! I totally understand that fear, but I've let down enough people with my recs that I couldn't hold it against you. (The Kay failure!) Especially with emotion focused, inside-the-head books like this, it has to line up with peoples' thoughts to strike a chord, I totally get that. Thanks again for the lovely description.

Elizabeth I'm totally not surprised you're reaching for this too. I'll be interested to read your review if you read it before I do- I think I'm likely to have similiar feelings to yours about this one.


message 6: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly Give in to the shiny! Don't be a hero! :)


Whitaker Kelly, I do hope you'll read it if only for the pleasure of reading your review when you're done. :-)


message 8: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly Aw, that's such a nice comment, Whitaker. Your review put it on my definitely-to-read list, for sure... though I've just embarked on a Tolstoy so reading it will be dependent on me emerging from that pile of pages alive! :)


message 9: by Michelle (last edited Jun 29, 2012 10:01AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Michelle Oh, I loved this book. I cried, which doesn't happen often when I read. Nice review, Whitaker.

(I had the same reaction you did after finishing the book - I picked up The Iliad.)


Whitaker Michelle wrote: "Oh, I loved this book. I cried, which doesn't happen often when I read. Nice review, Whitaker.

(I had the same reaction you did after finishing the book - I picked up The Iliad.)"


Thanks, Michelle!


message 11: by Sandy (new)

Sandy Tjan Great review, Whitaker!

Good luck with the Iliad, for those of you who are about to read it. It has its brilliant moments, but much of it was an endurance test for me. Tolstoy was a walk in the park compared to it. Miller seems to have been able to fashion a good novel out of a somewhat minor subplot in the Iliad. When I was reading it, I didn't feel that the Patroclus-Achilles relationship was particularly fleshed out. I was more affected by Hector's story, and that whole thing with Priam begging for his slain son's body is very moving.


message 12: by Annie (new) - added it

Annie I LOVE the Illiad so much. I would have never read it since it's a classic and sometimes I can't stand classics (the fault is entirely with the school system's way of teaching "English Language"), but it was read in class for a mythology class and holy crap, it has stayed with me through years and years.


Whitaker Annie wrote: "I LOVE the Illiad so much. I would have never read it since it's a classic and sometimes I can't stand classics (the fault is entirely with the school system's way of teaching "English Language"), ..."

Annie, a belated thanks for the comment. I just saw it. You'll be glad to know it adds to my resolve to read the Iliad.


message 14: by Scribble (new) - added it

Scribble Orca Heading off to Kinokuniya today with this on the wishlist - but the mixed reviews.....I'll be doing my usual taste-testing first. Love your review though - that's why I TBRed it :P


Francesco Cardiello The title refers to the first verse of the Iliad, "Sing, O muse, the rage of Achilles." Just a quick FYI.


Whitaker Francesco wrote: "The title refers to the first verse of the Iliad, "Sing, O muse, the rage of Achilles." Just a quick FYI."

I actually knew that already, but thanks for the comment, Francesco. :-)


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