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Alcestis Hardcover – February 1, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Beutner's debut tackles the Greek myth of Alcestis, who so loved her husband that she sacrificed herself to Hermes in his place. Beutner's retelling, set in ancient Greece, involves a more complex character: her Alcestis is a misfit who has deeply mourned the loss of her sister Hippothoe since childhood. Through Alcestis's eyes, Beutner provides a cagey look at men and gods, driving her narrative into the Underworld after Alcestis's husband, Admetus, proves so afraid of facing his own death that he demands a replacement. Alcestis goes instead, not for romance or martyrdom, but to find her dead sister. While hunting the land of the dead, Alcestis sheds the good girl identity she's begrudgingly worn her whole life and finds her fate tied to those of Persephone and Hades; eventually, she learns much about gods and men (especially from stubborn, simple Heracles). Beutner renders her multilayered heroine with beauty and delicacy, and concerns herself with no less than the intricacies of the soul; unfortunately, an abrupt ending sucks the wind out of Beutner's sails. (Feb.)
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From Booklist

Beutner has elevated a relatively minor character in Greek mythology to a major player. Taking center stage in this debut novel is Alcestis, the fabled “good wife” who sacrificed herself in order to save her much loved husband, King Admetus. In this reworking of the classic legend, a decidedly more complex and restless Alcestis is provided with an intriguing backstory involving her childhood and the untimely death of her favorite sister, Hippothoe. When Admetus is too cowardly to face his own death, Alcestis, hopeful of reuniting with Hippothoe, agrees to take his place in the Underworld. It is here in death that Alcestis wrestles with the true nature of love and loss, as she falls under the seductive spell of Persephone. Perched precariously between two worlds, she finds she belongs to neither when Heracles, her would-be rescuer, declares his intention to deliver her back to her husband. Beutner spices up this classic tale with a decidedly Sapphic flavor. --Margaret Flanagan

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Soho Press (February 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1569476179
  • ISBN-13: 978-1569476178
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,001,589 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Katharine Beutner grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She earned a BA in classical studies from Smith College in 2003, and she recently completed an MA in creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is currently a PhD student in eighteenth-century British literature. Her work has appeared in 'Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet.' 'Alcestis' is her first novel.

For more information about 'Alcestis' or Katharine, visit:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Kelly (Fantasy Literature) VINE VOICE on February 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The ancient Greeks held up Alcestis as a model of wifely devotion. Her husband, Admetus, was spared from death on the condition that someone else die in his place. When Admetus' relatives and friends refused, Alcestis volunteered herself and made the journey to the underworld, but was later rescued by Heracles. In her debut novel, a poignant literary fantasy, Katharine Beutner fleshes out the figure of Alcestis, and gives her a backstory that helps explain her willingness to sacrifice herself.

Beutner's Alcestis has always lived in the shadow of death, starting with her mother's death in childbirth. Then, as a child, Alcestis loses her favorite sister, Hippothoe, to asthma. When her father remarries, Alcestis forges a bond with her new stepmother and later with her half-sisters, but she still misses Hippothoe terribly and sneaks out of the palace to visit her grave whenever she can. Later, Alcestis marries her cousin Admetus, but their wedding night is marred by a near-fatal encounter with poisonous snakes. Admetus is spooked, and between that and his love for the god Apollo, he's a little distant from his wife. Yet Alcestis has never seen any reason to hope for more from a marriage.

Beutner paints a vivid picture of a world where women have few rights. This is not done in a heavy-handed way; Beutner's portrayal of ancient Greek misogyny is all the more horrifying because of the matter-of-fact way it is presented. A wedding celebration that continues in its merry dancing even when an unmistakable scream pierces through the music; a father praying for his newborn child but never bothering to name the wife who just bore the child, and pointedly not mentioning to the gods that the baby is female; these things serve to remind us that Alcestis' world is not our own.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Tara VINE VOICE on January 6, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This falls into the fantasy genre, I think. I normally read historical fiction, but my interest in Greek mythology caused me to pick this up. I have kept my personal tastes in mind while writing this review.

The first half of this novel is wonderful. Readers meet Alcestis, grand daughter of Poseidon, god of the sea. Alcestis's mother died birthing her and her father is a cruel man who really has nothing to do with his daughters. Therefore, Alcestis grows attached to her sisters, and one in particular, Hippothoe. When Hippothoe dies of what nowdays would be called an asthma attack, Alcestis must overcome her grief and while doing so, she comes of age for marriage. A persistant suitor wins her hand thanks to the god Apollo.

Alcestis marries and discovers her husband and Apollo, the sun god, have more than a mere god and mortal relationship. An even bigger surprise is in store for her tho when Hermes comes to take her husband to the Underworld (land of the dead) and Alcestis goes in his place.

The second half takes place in the Underworld, the land of three headed dogs and gates with minds of the their own. Here, Alcestis begins a cat and mouse game with Persophone, goddess of the Underworld. They begin a lusty and often hateful relationship. What I did not like about the last half of the book is everyone begins speaking in riddles. It takes poor Alcestis forever to find her dead sister. Or will she find her at all?

A good debut.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on February 22, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book amazed me. And really, I didn't expect much: it was advertised as a retelling of the Alcestis myth (perfect wife goes to underworld in place of husband) as written by a twenty-something grad student in Austin. I thought it might be mildly interesting and readable.

Imagine my shock when almost immediately upon starting, I was swept totally into the ancient world. The writing was so good that it was literally transparent in places, and it was as though I were actually living that life.

The story opens at the birth of Alcestis. We see her at various times during her early years, and are especially moved at the death of a favorite sister. Alcestis really cannot stop grieving. As she moves into her teen years and then marriage, we feel we know her very well.

Well, this story is so well known that there is no spoiler to say that she indeed goes to the underworld in place of her husband. But that is where the story truly begins in so many ways (and where a spoiler must be avoided here!). In the myth we don't really know anything that happens to her before Hercules comes to her rescue. But this 3-day period is a major part of this novel, as Alcestis searches for her lost sister and confronts the gods of the underworld.

When I finished this book at 5:00 this morning (yes, I read it through), I desperately hoped that this author has many more such wonders ahead of her. It is really a great feeling to be at the birth of such a possible publishing life!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Victoria on October 4, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I love me my Greek myths. Persephone's abduction is explanation for seasons? Yes please. Athena punishes master weaver Arachne by turning her into a spyder who's cursed to "weave" forever? Outstanding.
When I cam across Alcestis, an entire novel centered around a Greek myth, I thought, "yahtzee!" And to be fair, for the first half of the book, the author delivers: mortals co-existing with gods, gods manipulating mortals' lives, etc. However, about halfway through the book things start to get really trippy. To be fair, any Greek myth is obviously laced with magical realism and imagination benders but in the case of Beutner's Alcestis, it is flat out bizarre. For about 100 pages Alcestis is just wandering around the underworld playing a sexual hide and go-seek with the gods and making non-sensical conversation with ghosts. It's like the author discovered hallucinogenic drugs in the midst of writing and decided the novel should double as a visions journal.
Perhaps my expectations for the book were a little exaggerated but when all was said and done Alcestis was less than divine.
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