Down and Out in Macedonia
The Sweet Girl
Alfred A. Knopf
In The Sweet Girl, Annabel Lyon gives an imaginative and intelligent reading of Greek society in the waning days of the reign of Alexander the Great from the perspective of Pythias, the young daughter of the philosopher Aristotle.
Pythias, known as Pytho, leads an unusual life for a girl of her time. As the beloved child of a mourned wife, her femaleness—with all of the real and imagined limitations thereof—is often overlooked by an indulgent Aristotle. She is encouraged to question and investigate the natural world, usually by means of dissection and taxidermy, and, unlike most girls, is taught to read. Her childhood in Athens, as the cosseted daughter of a celebrity, an esteemed man favored and loved by the king, is golden.
Upon Alexander’s death, however, life changes for Pytho and her family, who must flee Athens and begin a life of relative exile in Chalcis. Her father’s death soon after causes Pytho’s protected status to disappear. That's when she learns, quite explicitly and somewhat disturbingly, about the roles available to a woman not under a man’s protection in 4th century BC Greece. As Pytho navigates the dark underbelly of Chalcis and the boundaries of her own identity, the narrative swings disorientingly between the spheres occupied by priestess, wife, whore and slave.
While The Sweet Girl challenges and undoes any illusions one may harbor about the classical world, it also illuminates it and brings it to life, contrasting the comfortably cerebral with the unrelentingly carnal—positing them, as Aristotle surely would, as the contrast between the masculine and the feminine. Like other novels that adopt the voice of a female relative of a famous male in order to subvert or expand a traditional narrative, The Sweet Girl allows the reader to approach Aristotle’s world on different terms, and in doing so, renders it vital and accessible.
Suzanne Buck is an instructor of Spanish and French at CNM.