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Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

Everything I remember about the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur comes from the hours I spent in middle school playing the board game By Jove (apparently long out of print and, when in nicer condition than the set I still own, worth quite a bit of money). 

In that game, the Labyrinth is a “side quest” players must complete in order to claim victory. You can only leave it with an exact roll of the dice. I remembered, in the myth, Theseus made his way out of the maze after killing the monster within it because a princess had given him a ball of thread he used to retrace his steps.

But until I read Jennifer Saint’s new novel Ariadne, I confess I probably couldn’t have told you that princess’s name.

Ariadne is a beautiful and compelling demand not simply that we hear the ancient myth from Ariadne’s point of view, but that we view her as far more than Theseus’ accomplice. 

My own memory of Greek mythology is sketchy enough that I couldn’t tell you anything about what happened to either Ariadne or Theseus after the Labyrinth. Saint spins a tale that sweeps us from Ariadne’s childhood on Crete, through the adventure with Theseus—which does not, as I had thought it would, occupy most of the book—and into her adult life as the wife of the god Dionysos. Saint’s Ariadne is a fully realized character—intelligent, independent, and insistent in her integrity. 

In her telling of Ariadne’s tale, Saint is herself a guide of sorts through the labyrinth of Greek mythology, with its sprawling cast of connected characters, gods and mortals and in between. She either takes full advantage of or cleverly invents—I don’t always know which, and I will go back to the myths themselves someday to satisfy my curiosity, but in the end it doesn’t matter—links between Ariadne’s story and many others: Daedalus, Midas, Perseus, and more. 

And she artfully and relentlessly insists we remember the women in these stories. Women do not generally fare well in Saint’s novel, and that is its dominant theme: how women end up paying the price for the deeds and misdeeds of men. Although Ariadne sometimes makes this point in justifiable anger, ultimately it sounds as a tragic refrain—even a fatalistic one, as though this state of affairs has been decreed by the gods of Olympus themselves. 

But Saint’s story is no screed. Ariadne and her sister, Phaedra—who also narrates some chapters of the novel—assert themselves as their world will allow them to (and, in Phaedra’s case, even pushing those boundaries in savvy and skillful ways), and hold out hope for men to do and to be better—only to have those hopes shattered, leaving them to respond in different ways.

I questioned some of Saint’s structural and stylistic choices. As I mentioned, Phaedra narrates some chapters. While her story is an essential parallel to Ariadne’s, there’s no question it’s the “B plot” of the novel (albeit a large one), and the introduction of a second narrator so deep into the novel is jarring. Phaedra’s last chapters shift from the past tense into the present—for understandable reasons, but the change is abrupt. And although they are distinctly and equally interesting characters, Phaedra and Ariadne “sound” so similar, Saint must resort to putting the viewpoint character’s name at the top of each chapter for most of the novel. It works to avoid confusion, but it detracts from a sense of unity.

But overall, Ariadne is an excellent novel, proving again the Greek myths’ endless ability to inspire and entertain, and to speak to our concerns. Saint makes the mythological world feel as real and as rich as our own, and gives us a hero whose name, and whose demand for appreciation as her own person, no reader will forget.

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