Margaret George’s Helen of Troy closely follows the story laid down by the original Iliad. Helen is born the daughter of King Tyndareus and Queen Leda, but her true father is the god Zeus who seduced or raped — we are never sure which—her mother in the form of a swan. As she grows to young adulthood, it becomes clear that Helen is unnaturally beautiful. When her early marriage to Agamemnon lacks passion, she soon falls for the handsome Trojan prince Paris. They run away together, leaving behind her husband, daughter, and her war-hungry brother-in-law. When Agamemnon was chosen as her husband, a pact was made among the other suitors that they would go to war against any man who stole Helen from her husband. Thus, her infidelity started what would become the 20 yearlong Trojan War.
While well written, I only give this book four out of five stars. The reason: Helen of Troy fails to live up to the extremely high standard set by George’s previous novels. Granted, the subject matter she chose to work with was quite difficult to manage. The story presented in the Iliad does little to shed light on Helen’s early life or her personality.
Also, George attempts to make Helen into a likeable, modern woman—a difficult proposition for a character whose infidelity leads her to abandon her 6 year-old daughter and to thousands of deaths including those of her brother, lover, and niece.
The scenery is rich, but the dialogue is somewhat contrived or stilted in certain parts. We never really get to fully understand how being the most beautiful woman in the world affects Helen as a person. It’s clear she’s ambivalent concerning the subject, but we never are never fully given insight into why.
True to her usual style, George follows the life of a single historical notable. What sets this novel apart from her previous work is the fact that Helen of Troy is, arguably, a fictional character. While the Trojan War has been proven to be quite real, it was more likely fought for economic gain than for the love of the Zeus’ mortal daughter.
George handles the departure from reality well. It would be easy to lapse into a completely mythical world when the original Iliad is so heavily laced with the doings of gods and goddesses. While she makes it clear that the deities do in fact exist and have their own motives for interfering in the lives of mortals, she doesn’t rely on them as a means to prop up her work. Primarily, this book is meant to be about the lives and choices of human. In this endeavor, it is a success.
Bio: Alexis Bonari is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at onlinedegrees.org, researching areas of online colleges. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.