How much of any text is the author’s purpose and how much is the reader’s projection? Alcestis: A Novel by Katharine Beutner reminds me that a book is a relationship, and mine have always been complicated.
I despise the world Ms. Beutner created for the young Alcestis. Her mother was dead, her father remained remote and cruel, and the servants were dull. And always, the Ancient Greek world she inhabited demanded propriety. This included how—or if—she spoke, how she wore her hair and clothes, and even how she cast her eyes upon the world.
I had to push my way through the first four chapters of girlish rivalry, feasts, and the tragic death of a beloved little sister. Alcestis is a proper girl destined for a respectable life. She is a believably naive girl and her world authentic to history. I appreciate that in historical fiction, but histories of respectable women do not fill my bookshelf. I stayed with the story because Alcestis’s inner thoughts made me believe something more was in store for her than what the myth tells us.
Do you know the myth?
The myth tells of a wife, Alcestis, who so loved her husband, Admetus, that she took his place in death. The oldest version ends with the goddess Persephone returning Alcestis to life in admiration of her devotion and courage. However, the version most of us know comes from Euripides’ tragedy, wherein the hero Heracles fights Thanatos and returns Alcestis to her grateful husband. Regardless of the version, the lesson seems to be the value of love and sacrifice — you know, the ways a woman becomes a hero. Maybe that’s what Euripides was telling us. Certainly, that’s what historians are telling us. This is the real value of this novel: myth seems to have overlooked the obvious. Ms. Beutner did not.
Ms. Beutner shares a different lesson by asking a different question: what kind of a man would not accept his fate and let his wife, whom he professes to love, die for him? Is the man a coward? Is his love false? He’s a weak character, to be sure! In this novel, we see Admetus to be sensitive, nurturing, and perhaps a little emotionally unstable—unusual attributes in a Greek king. Sense is made of the nonsensical when Alcestis realizes her husband is in love with the god Apollo. A homoerotic bond is where his passion lies.
Nevertheless, Admetus loves Alcestis as she loves him. It’s a warm kind of love built on courtesies. She’s jealous of the passion Admetus seems to have for Apollo because she doesn’t understand it. She also fears he’ll abandon her or cause her disgrace. Alcestis lives with that fear, hoping she will soon birth an heir and secure her position in the kingdom. That is, until she has her own erotic encounter with a god.
Ms. Beutner’s writing is textured and detailed, and it was interesting to me to see the passages other readers chose to highlight (I bought the Kindle version). The public highlights mark out lovely descriptions, and there are many. But my first highlight was:
I was a woman and dead, so I was doubly at her mercy. It was her right to look. But she didn’t direct her glances with care as a mortal woman would. The women I knew lowered their lashes to veil their eyes and looked at men sideways. Persephone treated the world as if it were there for her to see.Location No. 2604
The story came alive at this point. Alcestis came alive. A woman and dead — equally powerless positions, equally without agency. And then, the example of a powerful woman who believed the world was there for her.
Persephone is clear that she could appear as anything to Alcestis; she is a god after all. But she appears as a powerful woman, equal to Hades, even in control of him. She appears as a wronged woman who has mastered her curse. She appears as a mature woman who knows what she wants.
Her kiss was like the first bite of fruit gone bitter—long wanted and terrible when possessed. I struggled under her hands, and she released me, our mouths slipping wetly as we parted. She murmured my name again, her lips soft on my cheek, the line of my jaw.Location No. 3016
Desire is power. Alcestis needs to know this. She’s one of the few women who can embrace such a truth. She now sees the world, not through veiled lashes and glances as proper women ought, but with the entitlement of a man—direct and comprehending. She wants, as she has seen men want. And she finally understands her husband’s distraction, the “char of desire gone to coal, glowing still after Apollo left” but she had “never known this feeling before” (Location No, 2806).
The time Alcestis and Persephone spend together is desperate and gorgeous. We know, however, it can’t last. Persephone is a god, and as a god she is limited in ways a mortal is not—a delightfully Greek view of the divine. Alcestis returns to the world, wrecked by what she has lost. Heracles warns her “You must keep your shame to yourself” (Location No. 4006). She remains silent and allows the patriarchal myth to unfold. The public myth maintains its integrity. The private life has been revealed only to us.
Alcestis will stay with Admetus and give him heirs. Their life together will be pleasant and long. But she’s not the child he married. He’s not a man like her father. The choice will be hers. Admetus has lost the love of his god, and Alcestis has lost hers. Perhaps the mutual wounding is enough of a foundation for camaraderie. Of Persephone, Alcestis has only a memory to hold onto until death brings them together again, for
The men would not allow it, not for two women watched as carefully as we would be. They would hold us to our promises, keep us in our marriages, the places we were given as girls and must sorrow in as women. And I would miss her in every fruit and every flower, every pain and every poison, every bit of rot.Location No. 4325