It’s no secret that I love Greek mythology. I referred to myself as a “mythology girl” on our Odyssey episode of Novel Pairings and shared my love for my tattered copy of Edith Hamilton’s book of myths. As an adult reader, I can’t resist a mythological retelling. Most of the retellings I’ve encountered recently have taken place in a classical setting, but are told through an alternate perspective. There’s Madeline Miller’s stunning love story The Song of Achilles told through Patroclus’s eyes, Natalie Hayne’s feminist reworking of the Iliad in A Thousand Ships, and Ariadne, the upcoming reimagining of the Theseus myth told through the perspective of the minotaur’s sister. I adore exploring the ancient world in all of these books, but it’s really special to find a book that reimagines mythological stories in contemporary settings. After reading (and loving!) Olympus, Texas this week, I wanted to share a few favorite clever mythological retellings that reinvent these archetypal stories in a contemporary world. Fellow mythology girls rejoice!
Olympus, Texas by Stacey Swann
This book felt tailor-made for my reading taste. It’s a family story with an interesting structure, an evocative setting, and nuanced characters. Add to that some epic drama and clever mythological references, and you have a book that I truly cannot resist. Olympus, Texas starts out slower than the back cover description might lead you to believe. There’s a lot of groundwork to lay to ensure we understand the intricate relationships between Swann’s ensemble cast before things get moving. But after about the first third, things pick up and the story gets intense. What I love is that Swann is able to build in a dramatic plot while exploring themes of loyalty and legacy, and whether anyone has free will or is merely destined to repeat the mistakes of our families.
Never Look Back by Lilliam Rivera
Is any myth more tragic than Orpheus and Eurydice? A story that comes so close to ending happily and falls apart in the briefest moment is always heartwrenching. In this Young Adult retelling, Lilliam Rivera tells the story of Eury, a girl figuratively haunted by the trauma of Hurricane Maria and literally haunted by the an evil spirit, Ato. When she moves to the Bronx after losing everything in Puerto Rico, she meets Pheus, whose committed adoration and golden voice help her let go of her fear. The blending of magical realism with classical myth makes this book a standout, and Rivera’s lyrical style feels perfect for this story. Like the original myth, this novel is tragic, but it’s also a beautiful love story and a lovely exploration of culture and identity.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Shamsie’s storytelling is a subtle, nuanced reimagining of Antigone that avoids the trap of offering a scene-for-scene copy of the original. The book starts with our protagonist Isma detained at Heathrow because of what is clearly racial profiling. It’s a brilliant opener because Shamsie is able to tell us so much about Isma while also introducing readers to the themes of racial and religious divides that the book will explore. The rest of the novel explores Isma’s relationships with two important men in her life: Eamonn, the son of a conservative Pakistani-British Parliamentarian and her brother Parvaiz who has been radicalized by the Islamic State. Like many of my favorite retellings, Home Fire addresses essential contemporary social issues as well as enduring universal themes. It also uses a five-part structure reminiscent of the five acts of its source material—I just love that level of detail!
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
A perennially polarizing book, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is rooted in the world of classical mythology without being a direct retelling. The novel follows Lotto and Mathilde, a glittering, artistic couple keeping a lot of secrets, both from each other and the reader. The first half of the book we get to know floundering, but ambitious Lotto as he first fails and then epically succeeds at his playwriting career. Halfway through the novel, Mathilde takes over and we get to see the marriage through her eyes. Groff integrates myth in several ways throughout the book. Lotto’s plays are explorations of classical tragedies and the figures of the mythological fates and furies, of course, hang over the entire text, encouraging readers to ask questions about the powers that shape their lives. But Mathilde herself also feels like a character heavily shaped by mythological archetypes. At times she is Echo, reflecting her husband’s outsized sense of self. In other moments, she becomes the doomed prophet Cassandra or the betrayed and enraged Clytemnestra. It’s brilliant, frustrating, and utterly mind-blowing.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
This intense novel follows Yeong-hye, a young woman who’s entire life has been controlled by the men in her life. She has settled into this life when she begins having nightmares–horrible, violent, bloody nightmares that she can’t shake upon waking. To rid herself of these images, Yeong-hye refuses to eat meat. While this may seem small, it upends her marriage and becomes an act of independence that her husband and family resist with all of their might. I’ll admit that I didn’t know this novel was connected to the Daphne and Apollo myth when I first read it, and even after hearing that, I struggled to see the connection. But I got a tip from a Book Riot article that if you read Kang’s short story “The Fruit of My Woman,” which inspired the expanded novel The Vegetarian, you’ll see the connections more clearly. This new layer blew my mind! After reading the short story, I’ll say that I recommend The Vegetarian on its own, but if you want to read it as a mythological retelling, you have to read “The Fruit of My Woman” first.
Alright fellow mythology kids, what are your favorite classical or contemporary retellings?