Years ago when I learned that Greek statues and monuments were originally painted — in garish colors — my mental image of the ancient world underwent a dramatic shift. I was similarly jolted encountering the earthy, contemporary language and coarse goings-on in Annabel Lyon’s new historical novel, “The Sweet Girl,” about Aristotle’s headstrong, intelligent daughter, Pythias.
Lyon uses Greek names for her characters and scatters a few Greek words throughout — kithara (a musical instrument), iunx (a spell), hetairai (upper-class prostitutes) — but the novel abounds with jarring modern colloquialisms. Lyon’s Greece, as in “The Golden Mean” about Aristotle’s relationship with Alexander the Great, features braziers and bronzes (used as mirrors), couches and scrolls and oil lamps, but also books and beds.
Despite the dissonance to my ear of the 21st century expletive-rich idiom, Lyon has vividly brought Pythias’s fourth century BC world to life, portraying its denizens as not too different from us. The historical record scants Aristotle’s daughter, and Lyon is free to invent scenes that illustrate Macedonian-born Pythias’s chafing against the strictures that prevent females from learning to read, to depict her engaging in philosophical discussions with Aristotle’s colleagues, and to show her brandishing the vaginal dilator her physician grandfather used to bring babies into the world.
Told from her point of view, part 1 begins in Athens as 7-year-old Pythias and her famous philosopher-scientist father slit the throat of a lamb that the family will eat, of course, but which the two of them will dissect to examine its skeletal structure. Aristotle dotes on his clever daughter, encouraging her inquisitiveness. He permits her to stay when she slips into a room where he and his Lyceum colleagues discuss abstract concepts such as virtue, and he’s proud when she explicates complicated passages from his “Metaphysics.’’ Herpyllis (Aristotle’s former slave, now his wife), knows Pythias has “the spark of him in her,” and tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to tame her willfulness and teach her womanly skills, like weaving and painting her eyelids with kohl. With the death of his former student Alexander the Great, who had subdued the Athenians, Aristotle feels the Athenian rabble turn against him and, with his family, flees to Euboia.
Part 2 takes place after Aristotle’s death — here imagined as the result of an injudicious swimming experiment. Now in her late teens, Pythias takes charge of her father’s straitened household. His will instructs Herpyllis to return to her people in Stageira and sends their son, Nico, to Athens to study at the Lyceum. Pythias is to wait in Euboia for the return of Nicanor, Aristotle’s cousin, who has been fighting for years in the Greek wars. Aristotle has bequeathed both his land and his daughter to him. Pythias uses her wits to survive, becoming entangled with a Dionysian suitor, learning the greedy secrets of the goddess Artemis’s priestesses, working as a midwife’s assistant, even functioning as a “worthy companion,” until Nicanor arrives.
In part 3, Pythias has her vanity pricked when Nicanor seems at first indifferent to her, but she ultimately discovers his beneficence. The novel concludes with the prospect of a bright future for this clever woman.
This is an entertaining work, a plausible story full of raw gusto, leavened occasionally by a nod to Aristotle’s abstruse ideas. As Lyon portrays her, Pythias is not the “sweet girl” her father had called her, but resilient and resourceful — a survivor.
Kathryn Lang is former senior editor at SMU Press in Dallas.