The Dark Wife was recommended in the thread of f/f romance recommendations, and when I read the summary, I was really curious.
Then I started reading the book and before I knew it, I was more than a third of the way into the book, it was nearly midnight, and my brain had no idea where the past two and a half hours had gone. This book swallows you whole. Be wary of picking it up if you only have a few minutes to read. The story moves so fast and the prose is so attentiongrabby that you'll keep going and you'll miss whatever it was you had to do. In my case, it was falling asleep. I woke up early the next morning to finish the book, because I had to find out what happened. I was exhausted, but I didn't want to stop reading. This book will sneak up on you, steal your loose change and run away with your afternoon if you let it.
The Dark Wife is Sarah Diemer's lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth. It is tagged as “YA” in many places, including the author's website, and there are things about it, such as the tone and style of the story telling – it is from Persephone's first-person point of view, that cause me to agree with the YA tag. But I also think it would appeal to those who like YA romance, or who are curious about mythological retellings or lesbian romances.
Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, and she lives a sheltered and very happy life on earth, far from Olympus. Persephone falls in love with a female wood nymph, but when the nymph becomes a victim of Zeus' callous sexual appetite, Persephone's idyllic, protected life is destroyed. She has also become the focus of the unfortunate attention of Zeus when she is presented to the court on Olympus, and feels as if she has no choice but to submit to a god she hates.
Then she meets Hades, who surprises Persephone by speaking aloud the truth about Zeus, and also by not being a dude:
“Well,” she sighed, “so many of the gods’ stories, histories, are exaggerations, revisions of the truth. So many… And Zeus is at the center of it all. He has convinced the mortals that he is a kind and just god. Granted, he has done…some good in the world, but he is too selfish to truly care for anyone but himself.”
She sighed again, cast her eyes upward. “He spreads lies, Persephone, to the people of earth. Since the beginning, he’s spread lies me. He whispers in their ears, invisibly, so that they don’t even know where the knowledge came from. Because of him, the mortals believe me a cold, ruthless, hardened…man.”
Persephone is captivated by Hades, and accepts Hades' invitation to journey to the underworld to escape from Zeus. The underworld is fascinating and horrifying to Persephone. There is no sunlight, and there are creatures who scare the crap out of her, but there are also new friends, and Hades herself, who Persephone is increasingly attracted to and fascinated by. Even though Hades' world is the antithesis of Persephone's world on Earth, she doesn't want to leave.
The themes of the book, of feeling trapped in others' expectations, and of being unable or unwilling to ask for what you want most, were woven into the story in multiple ways, such as Persephone's relationship with Hades, with Zeus and with her mother, and Hades' relationship with Persephone, and with the souls who inhabit the world of the dead, and the Elysian Fields. Sometimes, the solutions to the various problems seemed to come so easily – but, as I noted in my copy of the book, these are gods and goddesses. They can solve problems that easily, but only if the problems are brought to their attention directly. They can't fix what they don't know about.
The only problem that can't be solved so easily is Zeus, who is intent on having Persephone against her will. Her mother can't protect her, and while Hades offers a captivating sanctuary that Persephone doesn't wish to leave, Hades can only offer a temporary hiding place that can't remain safe forever. Persephone has to face down what she most fears.
I loved watching Persephone figure out the limits and reach of her own power, especially the ways in which she learns how her actions affect others for the better. Casting Hades as a woman, a woman whom Zeus has tricked and lied about for thousands of years, is the focal point of a creative inversion of much of the mythologies surrounding Zeus, and the role of women on Olympus.
Persephone's perspective contains moments of wisdom and appreciation. She's hurt, scared, grieving, and alone, and she's in the most amazing place she's ever been, far away from what she thought was the safety of earth and her mother's home. When she learns to move past her own fear and grief, even for just a minute or two, she becomes a memorable heroine who recognizes the value of happiness amid so much fear and grief. The world of the dead isn't a joyful place, but Persephone finds a bit of it there.
This book moves so fast, I was tempted to gulp it down, and I made myself go back and read certain scenes, and specific chapters, so I could appreciate them again. Characters like Zeus seem familiar and scary, representing themselves, and to some extent representing larger groups of people as well. For example, this scene gave me chills:
“You see, I am king,” he said, “and kings do as they please. If you try to stop me, if you will not let me have my way […] then I will have to do…things. So sit still and play nice.” And he came for me.
Diemer's use of the Persephone myth and her many subversions and alterations of that myth captured that terrifyingly familiar realization that suddenly one is not safe, that there is no one who can offer protection. Persephone's story also echoed the feeling I have sometimes that everyone in power must be mad, or cowardly, or both, and there's nothing to be done about it.
I don't think the first-person narration was flawless, however. There were times when, as I said, the solutions come so easily to the characters, almost too easily. Some problems that built over several chapters were solved in a paragraph or less, and it seemed anticlimactic. Persephone as a narrator is also inconsistent at times. Sometimes she seems very old and wise – when she recognizes her position and power as a goddess, for example – and at other times very young, such as when she goes on and on and on about Hades, the things that scare her, the things she likes, the things she worries about. Persephone has the overemotional self-obsession of a teenager crossed with the experience and power of being a goddess who is the daughter of the goddess of the earth, and sometimes the crossing of those two can be jarring.
But Persephone's fear and feelings of powerlessness drive the story's pace, but are countered by the joy and amazement at her relationship with Hades, and her realization of what is right and joyous in her life. Persephone has to change her impressions of everything: her mother, Zeus, the other gods and goddesses, and of her own place in their world, and the story delivers all of those “coming of age” changes in a book I honestly could not put down.