Ariadne

Written by Jennifer Saint
Review by Larry Zuckerman

You all know the myth. Theseus, Prince of Athens, wins undying fame by penetrating an impregnable Cretan labyrinth and killing the Minotaur, a monster that eats humans. But what happens afterward to Ariadne, the Cretan princess without whose assistance Theseus would have failed, is another story, largely forgotten.

Saint therefore focuses on Ariadne; her younger sister, Phaedra; their mother, Pasiphae; and women everywhere, whether abused wives, daughters forced into grotesque marriages, or victims of war and invasion. With psychological astuteness, Saint also imagines the Minotaur’s effect on the family, both in private and in public opinion, for he’s Ariadne’s half-brother, born of Poseidon’s rape of Pasiphae.

Where Mary Renault portrayed Theseus as the classic hero in The King Must Die, here, he’s charismatic and fearless, all right, but utterly lacking empathy, needing constant adoration. When one trophy loses its luster, he goes off seeking others—much like the gods, who care only for how many worshipers they have and what gifts they receive, which they soon put aside. What a brilliant concept: The heroic ideal is a narcissistic lie.

However, Ariadne falters in the telling. One passage may soar, only for the next to plunge into triteness or the obvious. Many emotional moments depend on barrages of rhetorical questions, a weak, overused device, and Ariadne’s voice and thinking process frequently sound modern. Phaedra, though an intriguing character, changes from child to adult virtually overnight.

I also sense that, in Ariadne’s universe, whatever men touch will invariably crumble, die, or rot, whereas only women may nurture, behave honestly, or remain loyal. This pattern undermines the nuance the author deployed to re-create her two main characters and her otherwise fresh reinterpretation of the myth.

Ariadne, though thought-provoking, is an inconsistent, uneven novel.