The Golden Mean

Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean is the latest selection of the Slaves of Golconda reading group. The novel tells the story of Aristotle’s life, focusing particularly on his relationship with the future Alexander the Great. It’s told from Aristotle’s first-person perspective, and for me, this was the chief interest of the book: imagining what it might have been like to be Aristotle. We see him disagreeing with his former teacher Plato’s ideas about the nature of reality, developing his ideas about tragedy as a genre, and thinking about the danger of extremes and the importance of the middle way. We also see him dealing with a complicated relationship with his wife and facing disappointment in his career. He runs into political trouble because of his association with Athens at a time when he was living in Macedonia, Athens’s enemy. All of this makes it possible to conjure up an image of life as it might have been so long ago and to think of Aristotle as a real person with regular-person worries and needs, when generally I think of him as nothing more than a brain and a set of ideas.

I found the book disappointing, though. Like Stefanie, I thought it was a little dull. The main problem is the lack of narrative tension. I don’t need an exciting plot, but I do need some kind of tension to pull me through a book, or, failing that, I want some interesting ideas, beautiful writing, and/or characters I enjoy spending time with and thinking about. I didn’t find enough of any of these things. There are interesting things to think about, the tension between being a warrior and a scholar that many of the characters experience, for one. I was also intrigued by the way the first person perspective makes Aristotle come across as a sympathetic human being, one who treats the mentally disabled with tremendous compassion unusual for the time, but who also owns slaves and assumes that women have limited capabilities and value. There is something fascinating about getting into the mind of a person who thinks about the world in such a fundamentally different way than we do today.

But the ideas don’t seem to lead anywhere in particular. I was interested in Aristotle in a general and vague kind of way, but I wasn’t worried about what would happen to him — he was clearly going to get back to Athens eventually — and his thoughts and observations weren’t interesting enough to keep me happily reading. I think I would have preferred the book in the third person with some more insight into the culture of the time from an external narrator’s point of view. The advantage of first person, of course, is getting to see the world through Aristotle’s eyes, but perhaps an exterior view would have helped bring his character into sharper focus and would have allowed more commentary on the social and political values of the time. In the abstract I like the idea of historical fiction that doesn’t get bogged down in explaining all the details of the time and place — where the author isn’t showing off her research on every page — but in this case, I wanted a little more guidance.

At any rate, I started off the book with high hopes and did well at first, and then found myself less and less eager to pick it up. Other people have enjoyed it very much, though, and you can read Lilian Nattel’s very positive review here.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

8 responses to “The Golden Mean

  1. Alas, I over-committed myself for this month and completely forgot about this book. Sorry to all the Slaves! But I am guiltily relieved that you and Stefanie didn’t adore it, and so I didn’t miss out. I’m currently reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoires d’Hadrien which I imagine falls into the same sort of category. It’s written in a very senatorial tone which I’m sure is appropriate but tends to make me doze off….

  2. It’s interesting how different books can appeal or not. I found myself carried along in that first person interior voice even though it’s not a style that usually appeals to me.

  3. ok… the pressure’s off for me, for now. I’ll just leave it there in the TBR box for a while then, albeit I’ve clicked your link to Lilian Nattel’s review and read a positive view. I think it takes a certain kind of mood to prepare oneself for internal exploration without a story arc. Just have to wait for that kind of mood I guess.

  4. I’ve really enjoyed her short stories, so I’ll still make time for this someday, even though you didn’t enjoy it very much, but it’s good to have your thoughts in mind so that I can try to choose the right reading time for it myself.

  5. I was interested in the book before reading it to, hoping it would bring Aristotle to life. It tried, it really did, but it just didn’t quite get there. Maybe a 3rd person pov would have been better. Or maybe if it were a little less even-keeled and either went more for plot and an evocation of the times or more philosophical instead of a little of this and a little of that.

  6. I started reading it, but I didn’t find myself drawn in the way I like and as I was in the middle of a few other really engaging books I just didn’t give it the sort of attention it required. It was easy to set aside and then I just didn’t get around to picking it up again. I really like historical fiction, but I like a little guidance, too. I’ve not done very well with the Slaves books this year unfortunately.

  7. Ah, expectations. I often get myself in trouble with high expectations and the inevitable let-downs. At least you got the interesting look at Aristotle, but without some kind of path of growth or development it is hard to see the point to reading. Thanks for the review.

  8. Litlove — I read the Memoirs of Hadrian a few years back and struggled with it a bit. I wonder if I would like it more now? It’s a book I wanted to like, but … perhaps senatorial tones are not my thing :)

    Lilian — how interesting that the style doesn’t usually appeal to you but it did this time. I don’t have anything against that perspective, but perhaps with historical fiction it doesn’t work so well for me.

    Arti — I was glad to have Lilian’s review to link to so people can get another perspective. I do think it takes a certain mood to enjoy this kind of slow, contemplative book, although my sense is that I probably wouldn’t get on with this book no matter my mood. But you very well might!

    BuriedinPrint — how interesting about her stories! It’s great to hear that you have enjoyed them. Perhaps on a smaller scale, I would enjoy her writing more.

    Stefanie — I definitely felt it was too much a little of this, a little of that. I agree that going more for plot and background context would have helped. I tried too, but it just never really took off.

    Danielle — I can see how you could be distracted away from this book, especially if other books you are reading are very compelling. I haven’t loved the last two Slaves books, although before that was The Summer Book, which was fabulous. I think we all did well with that one.

    Bikkuri — expectations are definitely difficult to manage, and I’ve found they can get in the way of truly enjoying a book. Sometimes it’s impossible not to come to a book with lots of expectations, though, just because we hear so much about so many books. It’s just a matter of chance, I guess!

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