By Margaret George
Read: May 2009, approx. 240 pages.
I get very disappointed when books I want to be good… aren’t. It comes particularly hard on the heels of a riveting series, like the Black Dagger Brotherhood. And I just gave up on The Mermaid Chair, so it’s doubly depressing to give up on this as well. By all accounts, Margaret George is a good historical novelist. But I’m not the only one to find Helen of Troy to be rather lackluster.
I’m always up for a novelization of history or myth. I love them. If you don’t know the epic story of Helen of Troy, this Wiki page is a decent start, but what you really want is a good summary of the entire Trojan War, and, in particular, the Judgment of Paris.
What makes this book potentially interesting, but ultimately drags it down, is that it attempts to tell Helen’s entire life. Her entire life, from birth to death. That makes for a good 150 pages or so of only her childhood in Sparta, and her marriage to Menelaus, without a word about Paris. While the more mundane aspects of Helen’s life are given ample time, the truth of her origin (here, that Zeus mated with Leda while in the form of a swan) is minimized, and her abduction by Theseus completely ignored. Instead, she strikes up a friendship with wiseman Gelanor (who doesn’t appear to exist anywhere else), and a jealous servant tries to poison her. Cool, ordinary things are happening in Helen’s life. Boring.
This dithering keeps us away from the real meat of the story. Did Helen love her husband, Menelaus? Was she abducted by Paris or spellbound by Aphrodite? THIS is the story that longs to be told, but George seems almost to avoid it. Yes, Helen loved Menelaus… but without physical passion. She sees him as a friend and ally, but because she is unable to connect with him emotionally, their marriage founders. Apparently Aphrodite is punishing Tyndareus (Leda’s husband and Helen’s human-adoptive-father), and Helen herself for forgetting to pray to her. It’s unclear whether Aphrodite is being particularly cruel or just stupid when she agrees to grant Helen the gift of passion after 10 years of marriage… Helen finds she can only lust after Paris, the teenage boy some 9 years her junior. Conveniently, she discovers Menelaus has been unfaithful to her on the same day that she decides to leave with Paris. The lovers flee Sparta (leaving behind Helen’s young daughter, much too easily), and sail for Troy.
It’s not the most romantic journey. I confess, I’m having a problem being comfortable with sixteen year old Paris and twenty-five year old Helen who has a nin year old daughter at home. She’s nearing middle age for the era, and he’s a youth. It’s some kind of weird cougar complex, Ancient Greek style.
I waited for a long time for this book to get good. It was dull, and sort of rambling, and I told myself I would wait for Menelaus… then Paris… then Troy… But now we’re in Troy, 240 pages in, and I’m not bloody ready to start over with a whole new cast of characters. Probably because I don’t care enough about the ones we’re sticking with.
There’s a lot of faithfulness to the culture. I liked Menelaus’ courting of Helen because it seemed historically plausible. They meet briefly, when Agamemnon comes to Sparta to vie for her sister’s hand. The two share a moment, and Helen sees in him a potential friend. Years later, when the many suitors come for her, Menelaus sends his brother to represent him, afraid he will not represent himself well enough to win her. His pledge is that he will do anything she asks of him, and Helen demands he run some huge distance without stopping. He goes far beyond that and runs all the way to Sparta, to the palace gates, without taking a single break. Menelaus adores her. She respects him. But somehow they just never really connect as people. I suspect that very thing happened often in the old world.
But here’s the thing. I don’t believe in her connection with Paris, either. I don’t believe in the passion that rises up within her. Maybe I’ve been reading too many racy romances, but I’ve come to recognize that lust-at-first-sight moment, in its many forms. And it’s… here, but it’s… not. Helen SAYS she feels fire and breathlessness and all those others things but I don’t FEEL it from her. I don’t care that the book’s technically being told by her as a young woman, if this were the first and only man you’d ever loved, wouldn’t you have some compelling memories? It’s George’s choice not to go into the details of their lovemaking. It’s poor writing when we can’t feel sure of what goes on behind closed doors. Were Menelaus and Paris selfish lovers? Did they both adore her in the same way? Did Aphrodite really flip a switch so that she felt things anew? I need more here. I also need to see the true emotional connection between Helen and Paris. In their first days it made sense for her to marvel at the feeling that she already knew him inside and out and always had. But you can’t leave it at that, we’ve got to see this carried out. I don’t believe Paris sees Helen for who she is. I don’t think Helen sees Paris’ faults. But, hey, I didn’t get very far.
Hell, I have more faith in Helen’s friendship with Gelanor. That man is smart. He’s like the Sherlock Holmes/House of his time–he observes and learns and asks good questions. He’s loyal to Helen and demands only that she remain herself. Now, if HE confessed his ongoing, suppressed love for her, in the middle of this way between her two official lovers… THAT would be an interesting book. But it appears he’s only meant to be a bit player; a tool for the author.
Speaking of tools for the author… exposition FAIL. I KNOW how hard it is to get across all the history and background legend for these things to make sense, but I swear George just stopped trying. It’s in clumsy dialogue and Helen’s even clumsier first person narrative.
I’ll say it–it’s sloppy. The book is sloppy. It’s not tight, at all. It meanders, and Margaret George didn’t cut a damn thing she should have. I’m going to blame poor editing and subject matter outside her usual ken (myth, rather than history). I won’t rule out one of her historical novels, but I doubt I’ll pay for them.