Thursday, October 9, 2014

Beauty's Daughter by Carolyn Meyer

Beauty's Daughter tackles the story of the Hermione, daughter of Helen of Troy and King Menelaus of Sparta. The novel which is narrated by Hermione, is her story but it also involves the prominent role her mother played. It opens when Hermione is eleven years old, relating her early life and her family history. Hermione's grandmother, Helen's mother Leda, was married to Tyndareus, King of Sparta. The great god Zeus appeared to Leda in the form of a giant swan and seduced her, causing her to give birth to a giant blue egg. Helen hatched from the egg and was accepted by Tyndareus into a family that included twin brothers, Castor and Pollux and a sister, Clytemnestra.  Helen was extremely beautiful. When she was eleven years old, Helen was kidnapped by Theseus, the son of Poseidon and taken to his mother Queen Aethra who lived in a small village. Theseus left her and went off on his own adventures and eventually Helen was rescued by her brothers, the Discouri. When Helen was older, she married Menelaus whose brother was Agamemnon, king of Mycenae.

Agamemnon was married to Helen's sister, Clytemnestra, whose husband, Tantalus he killed in battle. At this time Helen was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. Her father chose Menelaus and at the recommendation of Odysseus, had every suitor swear to defend him. Hermione and her little brother Pleisthenes were born. Hermione developed a close relationship with her father, learning about the gods who seemed to control their lives;  Zeus and Apollo his son, Artemis, Apollos' twin and Athena who sprang from the brow of Zeus.

When she was eleven, Hermione's uncle, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and her cousins, Orestes, Iphigenia, Electra and Chrysothemis came to visit Sparta. At the end of the summer, as her cousins are preparing to leave, the Spartans learn that Paris, son of Priam, king of Troy will visit soon. King Priam has nineteen children, including Paris and his eldest brother, Hector. He also has numerous children by concubines and servants. Troy is an important city in the trade for silks and spices from the Orient.

On hearing of Prince Paris' visit, Helen decides to refurbish the palace with new couches, beds and fleeces. The handsome Paris arrives and immediately Hermione realizes that Paris and her mother Helen are attracted to one another. However, her father, Menelaus seems oblivious. When Menelaus leaves for Crete, Helen and Paris steal away and leave for Troy. Hermione discovers her mother's absence during the night but cannot wake anyone in the house. As she searches the house, she discovers that her Pleisthenes has left with them and they have taken all her father's treasure from the store house.

Hermione meets Zethus, Prince Paris's servant, who tells her that he saw Aphrodite, the goddess of love,  case a spell over everyone, as Paris is her favourite. Hermione tells Zethus that when her father comes home to discover his wife and son and his treasure gone, he will enlist the help of Helen's former suitors to help him recover her. This will likely mean war with Troy. And that's what happens as we well know.

When Menelaus arrives home to learn Helen is gone, he travels to Mycenae, to meet with King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra. Hermione will stay with her aunt while Menelaus gathers together the men who took the oath to aid him and travels to Troy to retrieve Helen. Menelaus and Agamemnon decide they will send an embassy to Troy to ask for Helen's return and when King Priam refuses, they make war on Troy.  They also decide to consult the oracle at Delphi. Eventually King Menelaus is able to assemble a thousand ships at Aulis, all painted black with huge eyes on the bows. Determined to travel to Troy, Hermione sneaks aboard the women's ship only to learn that it filled with prostitutes for the warriors. Hermione is protected by an older woman and eventually reveals herself to her father on the beach at Troy.

For ten years Hermione stays with the Greeks as they fight the Trojans. Hermione relates many of the events that are part of the Illiad; the fight between Kind Menelaus and Prince Paris, the death of Patroclus, the victory of Achilles over Hector and of course the building of the wooden horse with the Greeks hiding inside.  During this time Hermione and her cousin, Orestes, who has been involved in the Trojan war, become close friends and then lovers. With the war over, Hermione and Orestes decide they will marry. However, fate intervenes and Hermione learns that her father has already promised her to Pyrrhus, the violent and cruel son of Achilles.

Hermione has seen how the Pyrrhus enslaved Andromache, Hector's widow and killed her son, Astyanax and she wants no part of the marriage. Besides, her grandfather, Tyndareus betrothed her to Orestes when they were both children. However, when she tries to seek out Orestes to tell him what her parents have done, she learns that he has sailed with Agamemnon back to Greece. Hermione is forced to marry the brutal Pyrrhus and sets said with him to Iolkos, the main port in Phthia. After burning all his fleet, Pyrrhus sets out to Pharsalos, the capital of the Myrmidons.

Although Hermione tells herself that she must forget Orestes, she finds it difficult to settle into life with Pyrrhus. When Zethus visits bring news of terrible events in Mycenae involving Orestes and his family, Hermione makes the decision to leave and search for the man she loves.

Beauty's Daughter succeeds in telling the remarkable story of  Helen and Menelaus of Sparta and the war that ensued after Helen was taken to Troy whether by force or by choice, by Paris. This then sets the stage for Hermione's own story which takes place after the Trojan War. We know the story of Helen of Troy and the Trojan War because it is was passed on orally and eventually written down in what has come to be known as the Epic Cycle. The Epic Cycle includes the Cypria, the Aethopis, the Little Illiad, the IIiupersis, the Nostoi and the Telegony.  Homer's epic poem, The Illiad, (sometimes included by scholars along with the Odyssey) covers only a small part of the war. Very little is known about Hermione, except that she married Pyrrhus and that she eventually fled his home after attempting to have his concubine murdered by her father. Hermione eventually marries Orestes. It is this part of Hermione's story that Meyer fleshes out.

The storytelling in Beauty's Daughter is well done and will be very appealing even to those whom  the story of Helen and Paris and the Trojan War is well known. Beauty's Daughter is definitely an engaging read simply because the story encompasses so many literary themes such as love, betrayal, war, and the differing roles of men and women in the Mycenaean Bronze Age. And mixed into this story is the many gods who can't seem to keep out of human affairs.

Where Beauty's Daughter falters somewhat is in the development of characters. Because there's so much "story" to tell, and because we see the events only through the eyes of Hermione, as this is her story, the other characters are not so fully portrayed.  Meyer does develop Hermione better than most of the other characters, focusing on Hermione's struggle to find her place within the Greek encampment, her longing for her mother Helen, whom Hermione feels has abandoned her,  and her love affair with Orestes. Instead we see a kindly Hermione tending to women who have been captured as spoils of war and heroes who fall in battle. The reader never really comes to know Orestes, who seems to be an important part of Hermione's life for those ten years of war at Troy, during the time the two friends grow into adulthood and love.  Even after he commits his terrible crimes, Meyer does not flesh out Orestes much except to tell us that he is being driven mad by the Furies. The same can be said of Pyrrhus as we know little about what drives him to be so cruel to Andromache or so disinterested in Hermione.

Despite this, I enjoyed reading this novel. Meyer has done her research and portrays Greek social and religious customs with great realism. I found it interesting to see how Hermione and her fellow Greeks viewed their fate as whatever the gods determined, sometimes relieving them of any responsibility for their actions. Meyer has included a detailed map of Greece and Troy and a list of the many characters in this saga.

Book Details:
Beauty's Daughter by Carolyn Meyer
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt     2013
337 pp.

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