Review: Alcestis by Katharine Beutner
Alcestis was recommended to me at the beginning of the year. I eagerly bought it and put it in my to-read pile. I got about 10% into it and just didn't see where it was going. I put it down for a bit to try something else. Yesterday I decided "No, I have to finish this." I have a whole list of books I want to read and review this year, and my complacency in continuing to plough through re-reads was not acceptable.
So I picked it up late one night when I went to bed. I put it down at 2 AM that night to sleep, then woke up at 8 AM and finished it. The slow first few chapters picked up quickly, and didn't let up until the abrupt end. While the pacing seems off from start to finish, the story it tells is worth it.
The Perfect Woman, The Ideal Wife
Alcestis is portrayed in Greek mythology as the perfect wife of Admetus. She loved her husband so fully and wholely that when Hermes came to take him to the Underworld, Alcestis volunteered to go in his place. She never spoke out of turn, she never raised her eyes higher than decorum allowed. She was an ideal woman who knew her place and never sought to leave it. After three days in the Underworld Heracles makes his way there, battles Death, and rescues her. She is returned to her husband and provides him children. She was the damsel in distress, she was worthy of a heroic rescue. She came back and resumed her role as wife, taking her duty to provide offspring seriously.
The re-telling paints Alcestis as greif-striken by the loss of her favorite sister. She does not desire anything more than a husband who is not like her father. She is well mannered because that is how she avoids her fathers temper. When she decides to take her husband's place, it is not because she loves him, but because she knows if he dies, he is shamed and she has no where to go. If someone else goes, he is shamed, and she has to live with that. She does not see anyway in which the situation will resolve with her maintaining her dignity, as her dignity is so closely tied to her husbands. Her choice comes down to living in shame or dying with dignity. If she goes, she avoids the shame and stigma of having a coward for a husband, and can find her sister.
That Pesky Thing Where Women Have Agency
Alcestis exerts agency over this situation by making the choice that she feels is best for her, not what is best for her husband. She might care for her husband, but this retelling presents it more as (ironically) self-preservation than a total devotion to her husband's life. However, as this book comes back to again and again, every time a woman exerts agency in her own life, it is mistaken for something else, or it is ignored entirely. Her agency is re-written by the men in the story as love for her husband.
This entire book is about women's agency being striped from them and replaced with male wishes. In the Underworld, Alcestis meets, and falls in love with, Persephone. She learns that Persephone maybe wasn't raped by Hades. Persephone tells her story of meeting Hades, and tells how others percieved her meeting of Hades. This plot line makes it clear that to the rest of the world, Persephone couldn't possibly have made her own choices. While the rest of the world cannot concieve of a world where Persephone willingly ate the fruit and decided to stay in the Underworld. She obviously was tricked, or was too ignorant to know what she was doing. The world re-writes her story to fit into their boxes of what women are and how women operate.
This is reinforced in Alcestis's talk with her grandmother, who had children with Poseidon. Her grandmother, Tyro, is vague about the consent that may or may not have happened. Was it a love story or was it a rape? When Alcestis is confronted with her own desire for Persephone, she knows it is a choice she made. She cannot tell anyone she was tricked by Persephone, or lured in, or gone mad with grief from being seperated from her husband. She cannot pretend she was somehow bewitched. She realized she had acted with agency and intent. However, when Heracles comes to "rescue" her, she realizes that his narrative is always going to be the one that matters. There is no other way this can play out, except as him rescuing her from the spell of Persephone. The fact that the truth is something different does not matter to him, it is impossible for him to see the truth. He witnesses the truth of it, but quickly explains, to himself and to Alcestis, what he wishes were really going on. And since he is a hero, and this is supposed to be his story, his wish is reality.
It is impossible for men in this story to conceive of women having agency. Alcestis realizes that if a woman consensually has sex with someone, and another man takes issue with that, and thinks of this woman as his property, than it is rape. It is not the consent that is important, it is if some other man has claimed the woman in question. A woman's agency in the matter is not important.
Everyone Is Bisexual, Possibly Poly?
Well, not everyone. But enough people to make me incredibly happy about the amount of sexual fluidity. There was so much representation of people just loving/liking/lusting people because they are people, and not because of what they think is in their pants. The relationships between people who were liking/loving/lusting were real relationships, with real flaws, hang-ups, complications and all the messy stuff that goes with lusting. The relationship that was Apollo-Admetus-Alcestis was almost touching in a way. I don't know if was meant to be an intentional representation of how a poly relationship might function, but it felt like one to me. It was domestic, but it was complicated. There was so much unspoken between the three of them. Likewise, the Alcestis-Persephone-Hades relationship felt like a foil, or maybe a compliment to the previously mentioned relationship. It was messy, and really fucked up in a lot of ways, but it was people being completely aware of their partners other parter and not trying to take away from that. At no point did Alcestis try to stop Admetus and Apollo, and Hades didn't try to stop Persephone and Alcestis. The relationships weren't healthy all the time, but they were real. Not once was the sexual fluidity of Admetus or Persephone or Alcestis remarked on as being bad for being sometimes homosexual, Heracles didn't scold Alcestis for being queer, but for not being a wholely devoted wife.
My only qualm with this book would be the pacing. It started slowly, then suddenly picked up speed only to quickly come to a screeching halt of a stop at the end. I wanted, for the first time in my life, an epilogue showing Alcestis's daughter. I wanted to know if she was ever able to get over Persephone, if she waited each spring. I wanted more of a conclusion.