This review originally appeared on the Ottawa International Writers Festival blog.
Aside from a near-forgotten experience involving twenty misplaced books at my bookstore employment, all of my feelings towards Annabel Lyon’s work are positive. I wanted to read The Golden Mean since its release in 2009, and was delighted to hear that Lyon wrote a second novel—The Sweet Girl—as well.
Not surprisingly, Lyon’s first novel was nominated for all three of the major Canadian fiction prizes: the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s award for English language fiction, and theRogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the latter of which she won. The Golden Mean was the only Canadian novel published in 2009 to be nominated for all three of these prizes – which says much- considering it was Lyon’s first work of that form.
Upon finishing The Sweet Girl, I found myself feeling somewhat unsatisfied. There did not seem to be any clear moments of sadness or happiness within the novel, any moments wherein I felt justifiably angry or exuberant. Feeling this way—however negative such feelings may seem—served as an excellent tool for Lyon’s depiction of both Aristotle and his precocious young daughter Pythias. Both characters evaluated the world in a highly-calculated and logical manner, and this is entirely how Annabel Lyon coaxed the reader to travel through her book. All feelings are, or at least should be, supported by fact and science and decision.
As someone who loves history—especially the ancient sort—I was expecting sweeping landscapes and Shakespearean drama and complicated relationships. This, of course, would be the way I would know Aristotle and his daughter. As it turned out, however, Annabel Lyon provided a richer and more accurate understanding of the historical-fictional scholar, and his progeny than I imagined was possible.
The Sweet Girl picks up relatively close to where The Golden Mean leaves off, despite skipping a number of years of little Pythias’ childhood. Aristotle has taken a former slave, Herpyllis, to be his concubine after his first wife—also called Pythias—has died. We catch up with the younger Pythias, Aristotle’s daughter to whom the novel’s title refers, in her early years as a teenager.
Pythias is consummately her father’s daughter. Despite her incongruence with other young women of the time, Pythias holds her own at a dinner with Aristotle’s peers:
‘Can [your daughters] read books?’ I ask. ‘Not just the household accounts. I mean real books.’
‘Could they?’ I ask. ‘If you tried to teach them? If an ass could read, would it be wrong to teach it?’
While sitting in a spot originally intended for her younger, mostly illiterate brother Nico, Pythias directly questions the men at her father’s dinner. Lyon writes Pythias to be independent, and so obviously the daughter of Aristotle. Pythias is not confined to cultural norms and wholly focused on logical discussion and facts.
Pythias also mimics Aristotle in her insults. She does so by telling her adopted brother Myrmex “you’re stupid and you can’t read and you might as well be a plant yourself.” A lack of reason and intelligence, of course, is the ultimate insult in Aristotle’s household.
Quasi-stepmother Herpyllis is certainly well-meaning, but does not jive with the household of Aristotle. She claims that “[t]hinking is unlovely on a girl,” which certainly does not fit with Aristotle’s—or Pythias’—view of the world. Herpyllis nonetheless dotes on Pythias, and is a reasonable substitute for Pythias senior.
Shortly before the passing of Aristotle, I came to truly appreciate Annabel Lyon’s portrait of the loving relationship between Aristotle and Pythias. They spend happy days at the beach, swimming and examining various water creatures, experiencing—according to the aging philosopher—“fun and science.” I soon discovered that, though their relationship is highly significant, that this novel intends to focus more on the journey Pythias makes after the loss of her father—the individual she modeled her thoughts and thus her life upon.
Nearer to the end of the novel, I began to resent the connotations of the novel’s title. Initially, The Sweet Girl truly does refer to a father’s fond love for his exceptional daughter. Later in Lyon’s novel, however, such ‘sweetness’ (and femininity) becomes the absolute insult to Pythias; that though she would always be known as her father’s daughter, she would never be able to accomplish as much as he had. Eventually, she does manage to involve herself in midwifery practices, but such work that the reader anticipates for the daughter of Aristotle does not last long.
As laid out in Aristotle’s will (which Lyon included at the outset of this second novel), Pythias is pledged to marry to her older cousin Nicanor. After various financial struggles, as well as struggles of other sorts, Pythias ends up exactly where the culture of the time would have her: as a wife to a husband, comfortably settled at home. I found this to be a difficult reading experience, as Annabel Lyon had me hoping for some highly-fictionalized, atypical gender role developments for Pythias. That somehow, all historical evidence aside, Pythias wouldn’t marry and would find fulfillment in some sort of medical practice. My hopes were, of course, dashed—and rightly so.
Reading this novel was uncomfortably enjoyable. History isn’t actually all that enjoyable most of the time, but it still fascinating and important. Annabel Lyon’s second novel is an excellent means by which to forget that you’re reading fiction rather than a history textbook.
* Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of The Sweet Girl, but the above thoughts and opinions are fully my own. Also, there are Amazon Associate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.