Book Review: The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon

A Review: The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon

09.27.2012

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis 

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Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Annabel Lyon

Format: Hardcover, 246 pages

Publisher: Random House of Canada

ISBN: 978-0-307-35944-5

Pub Date: September 18, 2012

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The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon is a historical fiction novel in the time of ancient Greece, a story focused on the beloved and only daughter, Pythias, called Pytho, of the philosopher, Aristotle.

Aristotle

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When I first opened the novel to the formal list of the Cast of Characters, as I might in reading a Shakespearean play, I was a tad intimidated with the ancient Greek names: Pythias, Herpyllis, Nicomachus, Tycho, Pyrrhaios, Glycera, Euphanor, and Nicanor. As beautiful as they sounded as they rolled off my tongue, I was hesitant in turning the page to read further in anticipation and assumption of a verbose reading—but I’m glad I did and ever so relieved that my assumption, too, was wrong.

The voice of the main character, Pythias, known as Pytho is directly intimate and perfectly written in the tone of an inquisitive, intelligent, yet young, and innocent girl born into privilege and prestige on account of her famous father.

A certain highlight in this novel is the humanized portrayal of Aristotle, the deep and forward thinker, the natural egotism and elitism sometimes awarded to men and women of genius, but especially, the endearing and tender love he has as a family man and father towards his household including those of his servants, and the special bond he has with his highly praised and beloved daughter.

What one would normally know of Aristotle is his philosophical discourse, but it is in this novel, The Sweet Girl, that readers are enlightened to his special pedigree, temperament, and soft inclination and social exception to his daughter, Pythias, who he unconventionally raises to read, think, explore, dissect, and study in so much that she is inclined to a deep reservoir of intelligence, logic, and wit that cannot contain her from the surprise of  men of her father’s tutelage and peers and the scoffing irritation and jealousy of their wives as well as the women of the small garrison town, Chalcis.

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What’s interesting to note is the ritualistic and relationship dynamic between Macedonian and Athenian cultures at the time of ancient Greece between the privileged wealthy and the destitute poor; the educated and the uneducated; the men and the women; the master and the slave.

The propriety of women as talented weavers, market hagglers, family chefs, and elegant forms of visual beauty come at a high price of illiteracy and social hypocrisy.

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“Slaves,” too, are indentured workers obligated to accompany, guard, and serve their “masters” in exchange for accommodation, food, and associated protection by household name, which shows a mimetic example of cultural, ancient Greece.

Annabel Lyon does well in transporting her readers into a classical time with the necessary backdrop of its lush settings from  its home gardens and backwoods to the famous, switchback tides, and its extravagant homes of the wealthy as described of Plios’s house during a welcome party in honour of Aristotle’s arrival to Chalcis.

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But the gift the author has, too, is to re-engage the relevance of modern-day issues concerning the battle of the sexes, the advocacy of justice on behalf of the poor and the marginalized, the hidden, social corruption found in the underbelly of survival and greed, and the continual argument of sexual taboo.

Each character, too, is perfectly realistic in his or her role in the story, well-written enough for the book to be naturally paced and easy to read:

Pythias, known as Pytho: Aristotle’s daughter by his dead wife, also named Pythias is intelligent,  inquisitive, an independent thinker, and fiercely loving and loyal to her father and his needs; a survivor by instinct and led more by logic and reason than passionate emotion.

Aristotle: a famous philosopher and teacher, culturally and intellectually elitist, but a true lover of knowledge and study with an exceptional sense of justice towards others especially his own household, and a profound love and tenderness towards his only daughter.

Herpyllis: Aristotle’s concubine and formerly a servant is a woman of grace who runs the family household with tenacity and efficiency. She has a kind and vast capacity to love both Aristotle and her stepdaughter.

Myrmex: a poor relation and adopted son of Aristotle, inclined to self-pity, jealousy, gambling, and thievery.

Glycera: a widow of natural, yet practiced grace with a stern sensibility towards financial survival, perfect, social etiquette, and strict discipline.

A priestess of Artemis: beautiful, graceful, sombre—and hard as the goddess statue she serves.

Euphranor: a cavalry officer gifted with wealth and sensual charm.

Nicanor: Pythias’s cousin who is diligent as he is dutiful, serious, and reserved.

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The Sweet Girl is a testament to Annabel Lyon’s natural ability to bring depth and intimacy to an elusive and ancient past. And she does so with an easy eloquence and impartial narrative that the reader can can better empathize with the desires and the plight of her characters as they do in reflecting on the moral and philosophical questions that plagued ancient Greece and continue to be explored today.

The Sweet Girl is both despairing and sweet indeed: a personal story, a social discourse, and a novel easily deserving of its 2013 Giller Prize longlist nomination.

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thank you to Random House of Canada for providing me with a media copy of this book in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.

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What is it about ancient Greece that you find most fascinating?

Are you familiar with Aristotle’s philosophical teachings? Do you agree with them?

What do you imagine it would feel like to be Aristotle’s daughter, Pythias?

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