Helen of Troy has been described as the most beautiful woman in the world, the face that launched a thousand ships. When we first meet Helen here, she laments the fact that of 10 children she has one remaining, Hermione, the daughter who has no love for her long absent mother. Helen begins to recount her life in the hopes that her tale will reach her estranged daughter and make her see why Helen made the choices she did.
Helen recounts her girlhood as a Spartan Princess. Daughter of Queen Leda, she has long been rumored to be the offspring of Zeus, not Tyndareus who rules the kingdom at her mother's side. Helen is ostracized by the other girls for her beauty and is cruelly treated by her jealous sister Clytemnestra. Helen grows into an even more beautiful teenager. One day while she is out with her best friend, she is kidnapped by Theseus who teaches her how to use her beauty to rule all those around her. When she is finally returned to Sparta, Tyndareus decides it is time for her to marry and gives her to Menelaus, a man ruled by his brother Agamemnon and whose jealousy drives Helen away. While visiting the Spartan court, Prince Paris Alexandros of Troy catches Helen's eye. They fall in love and she departs Sparta with him. Agamemnon uses this as the excuse he needed to bring down Troy and sets off after her with Menelaus and the Spartan allies, starting a bloody war that will last 10 years. At the Troyan court Helen is just as much an outcast as she was in her girlhood. She details her life during the ten years of the war, Troy's defeat and her return to Sparta.
I really liked this version of Helen's story. Told in her own words, Elyot does not seek to make Helen a perfect person. She is flawed and as we learn, makes some very bad decisions throughout her lifetime. The author does a wonderful job at making Helen seem like a real person (even though she is not entirely mortal). She suffers because of many of her choices, most notably the loss of her first love, and the decision to leave her children behind to follow Paris back to Troy. I thought her rivalry with her sister Clytemnestra and the contrast between the two sisters was well written and I liked the fact that the author gave a plausible reason for the war besides fighting over Helen.
The love between Helen and Paris which is the center point of the story was a little bit troublesome because it felt like even though this was her love of a lifetime all the focus was on the physical relationship. I know, she's the most beautiful woman to ever live but wasn't there anything at all beyond that for Paris (or anyone else) to admire? I also had a hard time with her decision to leave her children. It felt like not enough attention was given to such an agonizing decision (and one I could never see myself making). The pacing of the story seemed a little off to me at times too. Helen would go into great detail about one aspect of her life but other areas would be glossed over. For instance, much was written on her time with Theseus but later in the book when she was at Troy it was like boom! "Paris and I now have three children".
Despite those few areas of concern, enjoyed this sympathetic look at Helen's life. I will be reading Helen of Troy by Margaret George later this year and will be interested to see how it stacks up to this story.
Check out this site I ran across which features several pieces of fine art depicting Helen, the main players in the myth, and the Fall of Troy.
From my own personal library