Sunday, October 6, 2013

Beauty's Daughter: The Story of Hermione and Helen of Troy by Carolyn Meyer

I've been a hardcore mythology fan for over three decades, and Hermione has always fascinated me. The daughter of Helen of Troy and Menelaus who first married the son of Achilles and then married Orestes, the cursed and then redeemed son of Agamemnon and Clytemnaestra, in many ways her story represents the continuing consequences of the actions Helen set in motion. Precious little has been written about her, so I was very excited to see what this novel would offer.

Unfortunately I was disappointed almost immediately. Helen is the stereotypical, vilified beautiful woman: shallow, vain and distant, to the point where she has no maternal instinct toward her less beautiful daughter. While we can understand how a child would perceive the mother who later abandoned her that way, I was offended by the way Helen laughed off her abduction by Theseus when she was a child. In this retelling, it was a harmless lark which reinforced that she was the most desirable woman in the world. Other authors have gone into detail about what happened to Helen while she was with Theseus, and it wasn't described as something someone would laugh about. It was chilling that a rape victim would be portrayed as, essentially, a narcissist.

I also took exception to the portrayal of Clytemnaestra, who comes off even before Agamemnon's treacherous attempts to murder their daughter as an unpleasant shrew- even though it's known to the reader that Agamemnon murdered her first husband. (In the original version of the story, Agamemnon also murdered her infant son.) Clytemnaestra is one of the most complicated characters in Greek mythology and because she's so important to this story deserves a closer examination.

Hermione is sympathetic for most of the book, and we admire throughout the story her assertiveness and resourcefulness. But there are enough places where she comes across as unreasonably selfish and frankly childish that she loses a little bit of rooting value. Also, knowing the myth, it was off-putting that the author only included elements that made Hermione a heroine and excluded those that didn't.

I also wasn't sure what kind of book I was reading. The tone of the book was inconsistent; while at times it felt like a Middle Grade book, it would jump at times to a very mature Young Adult, if not New Adult. (There is no explicit content, but there are clear indications of a brutal rape.) Also, as the author notes, this is a romance, in this case between Hermione and Orestes. However, the conclusion of the romance feels both forced and rushed, and after having spent 150 pages waiting for them to be reunited, the Happily Ever After is unsatisfying.

Despite these problems, I'd still recommend this for mythology fans- but only after consulting other sources of the story.