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Debra Hamel is the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.

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Updated 2-6-24. [Reviews are longer and have ratings. Notices do not have ratings.]

Books by Debra Hamel:

THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
By Debra Hamel


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READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
By Debra Hamel


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THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
By Debra Hamel


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TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
By Debra Hamel


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SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
THE LIBERATION OF THEBES AND OTHER ACTS OF HEROIC TRANSVESTISM
By Debra Hamel


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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
By Debra Hamel


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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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Guterson, David: Ed King

  Amazon  

2.5 stars

Normally, if I don't like a book as much as I didn't like this one, I don't bother finishing it. So you won't find a lot of really negative reviews on this blog. But in this case, I persevered because I was intrigued by the concept—it's a modern retelling of the Oedipus Rex story—and because the writing was sometimes good, but mostly because of the sunk cost: by the time I was really unhappy with the book, I'd already invested enough time in it that I wanted to be able to review it.


Sophocles' Oedipus grows up unaware that the people raising him are not his biological parents; he unwittingly kills his biological father in a road rage incident; and he ultimately sleeps with and marries his mother, maybe not in that order. (Hopefully that much isn't a spoiler, but there are spoilers in what follows.) Guterson follows this general storyline in his account of his modern Oedipus—Ed King (get it?)—and he also preserves some smaller details: Ed has problems with his feet, for example; he names his company Pythia. But Guterson also diverges from the canonical story in some important respects: his Ed doesn't have children, and he does not blind himself. Indeed, Ed doesn't live for very long with the horror of the big reveal, as Oedipus did. Rather than roaming Greece for years as a blind outcast, Ed endures an uncomfortable few hours. These major departures make me wonder why Guterson opted to hang his story on Sophocles' framework in the first place. I suppose it's a hook to attract readers, but his references to Oedipus Rex sometimes seem like afterthoughts.

Let me just get some smaller complaints off my chest before I mention my main issue with the book: no one in this novel is likable; Ed's private pilot is particularly irritating; Ed's grandfather's constant Yidishisms are annoying; Guterson addresses the reader directly about 75% of the way in, having not done that earlier in the book; Ed's thoughts after discovering the truth of his situation are banal. But the main problem is that Guterson writes in excruciating detail about people and events that are not relevant to the story. Sophocles had the grace not to bore his audience with the details of Oedipus' preschool curriculum. Guterson? You guessed it. We get that and so much more: Ed's bar mitzvah speech, his brother's graduation speech, mind-numbing conversations between Ed and that god-awful pilot and between Ed and his AI assistant Cybil. Guterson also fleshes out the lives of characters who don't matter to the story: his biological father's other son; Ed's mother-wife's brother; Ed's adoptive brother and grandfather. Guterson thus fills in the family tree quite a bit while also, as I mentioned, omitting an aspect of the Oedipus story that makes his incest particularly abhorrent (and thus all the more interesting), that he fathered four kids by his mother.

On the plus side, the fact that Ed's marriage is childless probably means Guterson won't be tempted to write a sequel.

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