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Wed June 12, 2013

Aristotle's Daughter Comes Of Age In 'The Sweet Girl'

Many novelists aim to transport readers to another time and place, but Canadian writer Annabel Lyon has a special gift when it comes to time travel. Her new novel, The Sweet Girl, carries us back to the world of Aristotle and his student Alexander the Great. It's a sequel to The Golden Mean, Lyon's earlier novel about the everyday lives of the ancients; I loved that book and was eager to see where The Sweet Girl would take us.

As the novel opens, the Macedonian-born Alexander the Great has just died from battle wounds in Asia. Alexander's now-aged teacher Aristotle is ready to turn over his academy to a successor and devote himself to his own studies — and to raising his adolescent daughter Pythias, the sweet girl of the book's title. Pythias' mother has died, and the girl has come under the wing of her father's concubine Herpyllis. Aristotle decides the time has come to teach his daughter about the natural world.

Pythias — or Pytho, as she's known — adores her father. And he adores her, making it his business to see to her education as if she were his son. She certainly demonstrates some of his same intelligence: Seeing her breath on the air on a cold morning, she says, "There must be fire in us ... Or something like embers. In the heart, maybe? To make smoke like this?"

In Lyon's brilliantly imagined depiction of the ordinary world of Athens, there is a lot of fire. Reaction among the Athenian populace to the news of Alexander's death forces Aristotle to flee to the countryside with his family and entourage. His own death comes soon thereafter, leaving his sweet girl fatherless.

In the novel's second half, Pytho grows into young womanhood while conspiring to keep herself safe in a rough and dangerous world. The story is triumphant — and the storytelling, too, is a triumph. Lyon has delivered a beautifully made and otherworldly (ancient-worldly?) novel, revealing a land of kings, gods and demons that somehow seems as familiar as our own.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. "The Sweet Girl" is a new novel that carries us back to the world of Aristotle and his student, Alexander the Great. It's by Anabel Lyon, the sequel to her 2011 novel "The Golden Mean." Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: I loved Lyon's earlier book about Aristotle and his everyday world and I was really eager to see where "The Sweet Girl" would take us. The Macedonian-born Alexander has just died from battle wounds in Asia as the novel opens. Alexander's Macedonian teacher, Aristotle, has aged and he's ready to turn over his academy to a successor and devote himself to his own studies and to teaching about the natural world to his adolescent daughter Pythias, the sweet girl, of the book's title.

Pythias, or Pytho as she's known, who's mother has died, has come under the wing of her father's concubine, Herpulus(ph). Pytho adores her father and he adores her, making it his business to tend to her education as if she were his son. She certainly demonstrates some of his same intelligence. Seeing her breath on the air on a cold morning, she says, there must be fire in us or something like embers, in the heart maybe, to make smoke like this.

In Lyon's brilliantly imagined depiction of the ordinary world of Athens and its environs, there is a lot of fire. Reaction among the Athenian populous to the news of Alexander's death forces Aristotle and his family and entourage to flee to the countryside. His own death comes soon thereafter, leaving his sweet girl fatherless. How she emerges with cunning and triumph into young womanhood, even as she conspires to keep herself safe in a rough and dangerous world, forms the triumphant second half of this beautifully made and other-worldly or, I should say, ancient-worldy novel.

A world of kings and gods and demons that at the same time, seems as familiar as our own.

BLOCK: That's Alan Cheuse reviewing the novel "The Sweet Girl" by Anabel Lyon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.