Alcestis--Katharine Beutner

I am going to post a mostly negative review for one of the few reasons I can think to do so--to warn prospective readers away from (or encourage those who are tempted by) what I see as the chief weaknesses of the book.  I have to say that my disappointment is entirely my own fault.  Had I paid careful attention to the blurbs on the back of the book, I would have realized that this was a book with an agenda--a poorly realized and all to tritely executed agenda--but an agenda.  You see, Alcestis is all about female empowerment, not that this in itself is a bad thing.  But one must wonder whether those who dream of female empowerment have learned absolutely nothing regarding their own state in life or the state of others they've seen as disempowered.  Why must empowerment always be accompanied by such an overwhelming gust of contempt?  Just because it has been so in the past and we must return like for like.  No, rather, I think it is failure of imagination.

Alcestis starts with a wonderful premise--to retell one of the more interesting stories of "wifely devotion and duty."  I say that in quotes because it isn't really my opinion of how this should be phrased, but it is the phrase that gets passed down to us.  Alcestis is the story of a woman who volunteers to go to Hades' kingdom in place of her spouse.  And this novel is the story of her three days in that kingdom.  A marvelous premise--to explore the mind of the woman who chose this way.  But because the exploration is subservient to the agenda (how stupid, selfish, self-involved, uncaring, cowardly, and weak all men are and how it is a womanly burden to tolerate these things) the execution suffers.  In the course of the novel we get a heady dose of homosexual relations--implied male-male, nearly explicit female on female.  And the center of the novel is completely occupied with telling us how unconcerned Alcestis is with her husband, with men in general, with death, with life, with much of anything.

The effect is to take the mythic and reduce it to the service of a screed.  The central portion of the novel is occupied with one long tirade against the pale penile patriarchy.  The real problem is that there is some really fine writing and some really fine realization of some of the elements of the story.  If only Ms. Beutner could have chosen a form of empowerment that really empowers.  If only her imagination did not devolve upon the same contempt with which all in position of power have looked upon those subservient.  But because she is ultimately, philosophical, in thrall to this, the novel fails, and fails badly.

That said, there are those for whom this novel will feed the fires of their righteous furies.  It will raise the banner of all that is wrong with malekind and emphasize it in a new way.  And there are those for whom this will be a beautiful and delicate retelling of a story really undeserving of the honor of being retold because it was so oppressive to start with.  The oppression is alleviated by the new cloak it wears.  There is much legitimacy to the view.

I wish I could fault the book on something other than philosophy.  It would seem so much more valid.  However, I found the writing lovely and convincing, evocative of the times and at the same time making traditions alien to us familiar and sensible--giving them meaning.  Perhaps that is why what I view as a failure of vision hurts so much--this book could have been so much more than it presently is.

My conclusion--I heartily recommend that men avoid this screed like the plague--it is not worth the time or attention I've given it in the course of review.  On the other hand, women may find the view more congenial and (not being the subject of so many of the barbs and arrows) may find much more to admire in in. 

And so I come to a divided recommendation the ends with giving the book three stars on the merit of the writing, the ideas, the depth of detail, and sense of immersion in time, and all of the strong and beautiful elements of what is, for me, ultimately a failed attempt to remake a mythic theme.



  1. I read your review and I have no idea what your point is.

    This seems to be your strongest statement: "The central portion of the novel is occupied with one long tirade against the pale penile patriarchy."

    But you don't cite any examples to back it up. "pale penile patriarchy" is just rhetoric. What are you talking about?

    Factually, women in antiquity didn’t have any say in their own fates. Women were bought, sold, bred and sacrificed as needed. That’s just factual. During the era the Ms. Beutner explores, a man could take his newborn child and expose it on the hillside for any reason he chose (infanticide). He could also turn his wife out of the house for any reason and leave her destitute. Any man who encountered a woman alone could legally rape her on the grounds that a woman without a chaperone is fair game for rape. Those things did happen.

    So I don’t really know why you’re so hard on this novel. It seemed grounded in reality to me (except the mythical parts).

    Are you saying that women could have exerted a right to self-determination at any time they wished? Because that just wasn’t so.

    As for the heady dose of homosexual relations - it's ancient Greece. Homoxesual relations were not only normal but institutionalized at the time.

    It’s your right not to like this novel – there were parts of it I didn’t care for myself. But I just don’t understand the point you’re trying to make.

    Perhaps you should cut back on the inflammatory adjectives and say what you mean.


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