When was the first time you learned the story of Ariadne, the girl who helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth of Crete? For me, it was in the mythology section of an ancient textbook, passed down by a teacher grandmother. When I was too young I read a tattered copy of June Rachuy Brindel’s Ariadne and desperately wanted to understand it. (I absolutely did not, and remember it only like scraps of a dream.)
We rarely hear about what happened to Ariadne after the labyrinth. There are varying stories, and more than one ending for the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae. But you don’t really need to know any of them to understand Jennifer Saint’s debut novel, Ariadne. Packed with myth and tales of misbehaving gods, it is—for better and for worse—a detailed filling-out of the ways Ariadne and her fellow women suffer at the hands of the ancient, mythological patriarchy.
Saint starts with a brief overview of the deeds of King Minos of Crete, Ariadne’s father and a “righteous man” who murders the princess Scylla after she helps him defeat her father. What use, Ariadne asks, is a treacherous daughter?
If you know this story at all, you know this question is not irrelevant. Saint takes her time with the familiar part of the story, but before long, the Minotaur is born, the son of Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, and a sacred bull. (It’s a long story, but in short, Zeus is and always will be a dick.) The arrival of the bull-child is a blight on Minos’s reign: His wife curses him, his people hate him, and eventually he begins to sacrifice prisoners to the Minotaur. After Minos goes to war with Athens, he switches up the sacrifice, demanding 14 youths from the conquered city each year. And that’s where Theseus comes in: The prince of Athens arrives as a sacrifice, determined to defeat the bull and end the sacrifices.
Ariadne’s choice to help him do this is one of the rare moments where she takes action. Partly it’s to escape a political marriage arranged by her father. Partly it’s because she can’t stand to watch the doomed slaves, the victims of her father’s cruelty. And partly it’s because Theseus is hot and strong and sure of himself. Before long, he also reveals himself to be a slippery eel, a man unworthy of Ariadne’s choice to betray her father. There is no choice, for Ariadne, that doesn’t give a man more power—and leave her with little to none.
Saint knows her mythology backwards and forwards and barefoot and sauntering off into the trees for bloody rituals, but her tale rarely strays from the expected path. I struggled with Ariadne for several reasons, and one of them is simply that it’s very traditional. This isn’t the reinvention of a witch (Circe) or the creation of a life for a character who never speaks or is barely noted (Lavinia, The Witch’s Heart). Saint brings Ariadne and her sister Phaedra to the foreground, but can’t quite find a satisfying balance between their lived experiences and the way those experiences are shaped by men. Over and over, we return to stories of gods and men (and occasionally goddesses) punishing women, often making them the punching bags for men’s mistakes. It’s true to the myths, yes. But do we read retellings for familiarity, or for new takes on old stories, new windows into un-considered lives, new perspectives on archetypes, new ways to consider things?
The answer can absolutely be both: There’s nothing wrong with wanting to re-experience the familiar. But part of what makes any book work or falter is the writing itself, and Saint’s style is at once cluttered and formal, with the contraction-avoidance of a certain stripe of fantasy and a tendency for characters to call or ask or shrill or sputter their words. A kind of pulpy richness runs throughout, and makes the story feel distant rather than affecting—a frill of overwrought imagery keeping us from the emotional center of her characters. Where Saint succeeds, as her story shifts between Ariadne and Phaedra, is in keeping the two sisters connected across distance, neatly drawing parallels between their lives even as their experiences diverge.
Retellings can be so many things—they can reverse the fates of gods, create more inclusive worlds, mix and match snippets of mythology and fairy tale and legend, interrogate norms and long-standing assumptions, and ask questions about why we love the stories we love. Ariadne, in contrast, feels more like a cover song than a new melody. If you like the song already, you may find much to like here. There’s no harm in listening to the same tune on repeat—but you may also feel that an opportunity to do something fresh was missed.