In Ovid’s telling, Pygmalion is a gifted sculptor whose encounters with sex workers leave him so disgusted that he forgoes female companionship. Instead he carves a woman out of ivory and quickly falls in love with it, ultimately praying to the goddess Aphrodite to bring his sculpture to life. The goddess hears his plea, the statue comes to life, and the two marry and have a child for whom the city Paphos is named. They presumably all live happily ever after.
For centuries, Pygmalion has provided inspiration for writers from George Bernard Shaw to Richard Powers to Pete Wentz, and according to Miller’s afterword, “numerous makeover movies, like ‘Pretty Woman,’ clearly owe it a debt.” Notably, most of the story’s most famous adaptations have been written by men.
A classics scholar, Miller has long been comfortable wedding modern concepts of identity to ancient stories in ways that make them feel new. Her 2011 debut, “The Song of Achilles,” is an adaptation of “The Iliad,” told from Patroclus’s point of view. It’s a stunning piece of work that explores themes of fate and family, love and class, in lovely and propulsive prose that easily matches the mythic proportions of its source material.
But perhaps what captured contemporary audiences the most is the choice Miller made to reframe the familiar tragedy as a love story, a choice that grounds the epic in a poetic, firelit intimacy. Her 2018 novel, “Circe,” reimagines the titular goddess’s story as a pursuit of selfhood in a world that denies it to you because of circumstances of birth. It tracks, then, that “Galatea” came to Miller in the same writing session as “Circe.”
“Galatea,” which was originally released in the anthology “XO Orpheus: Fifty New Myths,” begins with its lead character in repose. She’s not asleep, waiting to be awakened by her lover, but relegated to a hospital after attempting to escape her husband, Pygmalion, who goes unnamed in this story, just as Galatea does in Ovid’s original.
Miller’s Galatea is as matter of fact as the stone she came from. She is keenly aware of the motivations of those around her in the way that children, unencumbered by preconceptions or politesse, sometimes pierce the heart of things, to our discomfort. She spends much of her time indulging her husband’s fantasies. One in particular requires her to re-create the moment she was “born.” In the kind of gently placating tone a parent takes with a child, she narrates how she must first open her eyes “like a dewy fawn” before making “a little gasping noise of wonder and gratitude.”
She must be careful to hold herself “just the way he likes, or it ruins everything.” She sees the world, in other words, as a sentient statue might, always aware that she is, to others, an object to be perceived and treasured, taken and possessed, with no regard to her own desires.
But her guilelessness doesn’t mark her as an ingenue. She’s equal parts perceptive and playful, brave and calculating. She is everything her husband resents in women, and the story of their marriage will come as a surprise only to those who saw romance in Pygmalion’s devotion to his stony creation rather a cautionary tale of what happens when women don’t live up to the delusions of men. Fans of Miller will find “Galatea” a captivating, if brief, return to the worlds that she so richly conjures.
They also might find “Galatea” to be her most personal work. Miller admits as much, writing in the afterword that while “in ‘Circe’ and ‘Achilles’ I drew on many traditions, cross-referencing and interweaving multiple sources … ‘Galatea’ was a response, almost solely, to Ovid’s version of the Pygmalion myth in the ‘Metamorphoses.’” In this response, we see more of Miller’s disposition take shape; we see her reaction to and interpretation of the male-centered narratives that her work springs from and pushes against.
But the responsive nature of “Galatea” doesn’t stop at the story. Miller has always enjoyed critical acclaim, winning the 2012 Orange Prize for “The Song of Achilles.” But it was almost a decade later that the novel started selling more than 10,000 copies a week, a phenomenon that shocked Miller and her publishers but not the denizens of BookTok, who by that point were used to running the New York Times bestsellers list.
Miller may be one of BookTok’s biggest beneficiaries, along with Sarah J. Maas and, most recently, Colleen Hoover. Currently, the top two “Song of Achilles” hashtags on TikTok have a combined 432 million views. The “Madeline Miller” hashtag has more than 70 million. And Miller’s publishers have clearly taken notice. “Galatea,” with its attractive midnight-blue cover and gold-embossed lettering, will look at home on many a BookTok bookshelf, where aesthetics are often a way into literature, and deep feeling a way through it.
It’s a clever if somewhat cynical move on Miller’s publisher’s part. Unlike with Hoover or Maas, Miller’s releases aren’t a yearly or even biyearly affair. Her next book, a retelling of Persephone’s trials and travails, doesn’t have a release date yet.
If her other writing timelines are anything to go by — she famously took 10 years to write “The Song of Achilles” — her fans have a while to wait before any book-length project is ready to buy. The flashy release of a short story that’s been available for almost a decade could easily be read as an attempt to satiate BookTok’s ever-increasing demands for new content.
Thanks to an earlier British release date, we have some hints as to how this ploy might go over once “Galatea” is widely available for purchase. One of the most popular videos about the short story is from BookToker Abby Parker, or @abbysbooks, whose on-screen video caption reads “I knew it was gonna be small but I did not comprehend HOW small.”
The comments are a Greek chorus of “my shampoobottles [sic] label has more text on it” and “What is this? A book for ants?” and then, ultimately, “whatever this is, imma buy it cause it’s Madeline miller.”
Other videos are in the same key. Another BookToker wrote: “I really liked the story! And it’s good decor cause it’s so cute.” The sentiment seems to be what Miller’s publishers are banking on: “Galatea’s” marketing materials include that the short story is “gifty.” The official TikTok account for the U.K. publisher of “Galatea” suggests that it’s perfect for the “Madeline Miller fan who has everything.”
It’s true that Miller’s clear references to feminist literature in “Galatea” are new in her oeuvre, if not surprising to close readers of her work. But perhaps what’s most revealing about the release of “Galatea” is less what it says and more what it signals: Miller’s ascendancy to the kind of literary stardom that transmutes her work into something to be possessed and displayed.
Rachelle Hampton is a culture writer for Slate and host of the internet culture podcast “In Case You Missed It.”
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