The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

I’m a sucker for any fiction set in the world of college academia, and I don’t know why. It’s maybe that romantic, old-world sense I get when reading about Ivy League universities or the dreaming spires of Oxford. I suppose it’s also because they are so removed from the very modern universities and colleges that I’ve spent my life around, so their age and connection to an older history are that much more exotic to me. The Maidens is set at Cambridge University in Great Britain, and described very much in its old-fashioned glory, with a very modern murderer at its heart and yet pays homage to Greek mythology and philosophy as well. Well, hell! Ivory-tower academia, ancient Greek myths and gruesome murders? I’m in!

The main protagonist, Marina, is a recently widowed young psychiatrist who runs group therapy sessions in London and is grieving the death of her husband Julian, when she gets a frantic call from her niece Zoe. Zoe is a student at Cambridge University, and her best friend Tara has just been found murdered. Marina goes into protective auntie mode and races to Cambridge, where she herself was a student a few years back (and where she met the charming Julian) and manages to insert herself into the murder investigation using her psychiatric credentials. While she is there, she makes the acquaintance of Professor Edward Fosca, a very charismatic instructor who, in his spare time, teaches a small, select group of young women whom he tutors privately in Greek mythos and philosophy. The group, called The Maidens, also boasted the murdered Tara as one of its number until her gruesome death. As time goes on, Marina becomes more entranced by Fosca and equally convinced that he is the murderer.

Marina is an interesting character. I enjoyed her mental struggles and inner meanderings more than I did the mystery, but I don’t find police procedurals terribly fascinating, and a large chunk of the book is indeed that. However, Marina’s own Greek heritage becomes intimately intertwined with her investigation into Fosca and The Maidens. I particularly enjoyed the tie-in with the godesses Demeter and Persephone, perhaps because the myth of Persephone was the very first Greek myth I ever read and fell madly in love with the story.

For those of you who are not Greek mythology nerds like me, the story of Demeter and Persephone is thus: Demeter was the ancient Greek goddess of agriculture and the harvest, and Persephone was her beautiful daughter. Hades, god of the Underworld, saw Persephone and fell in love with her but knew Demeter would not allow him to be near her daughter. So one day, he rode his black-horsed chariot from the Underworld to Earth where Demeter and Persephone were in the fields. The earth split open and Hades emerged, grabbing Persephone and abducting her to his palace in the Underworld, where he kept her as his bride. Demeter, naturally heartbroken, searched the world for her daughter and neglected her goddess duties. As a result, harvests died, trees and flowers and plants died, animals died and the world was covered in famine. Zeus, seeing what was happening, sent the god Hermes to Hades to get Persephone back to her mother. However, no one counted on Persephone falling in love with Hades and not wanting to leave him. Persephone wanted to be with her mother, but wanted to also be with Hades. As a gift, Hades presented Persephone with a pomegranate, from which she ate six seeds, the ancient Greek belief being that if someone ate food given by a captor, they would return to the captor. In this case, Persephone chose to stay with her husband in the Underworld six months out of the year – one month for each pomegranate seed – and six months with her mother on Earth. This myth was used to explain the cycle of the seasons each year; with winter being the time when Persephone was with Hades and the summer when she returned to her beloved Mother.

The Fate of Persephone, 1877 (oil & tempera on canvas) by Crane, Walter (1845-1915)

As I said, the combination of Greek mythology with the deep psychological themes that permeate the book are what kept me reading. Marina is herself a very complex person, dealing with her grief as she goes along yet you sense that there are aspects of her childhood and marriage that she is either not facing up to or even masking other emotions. Her family dynamic is very sad and she never truly feels loved until she meets Julian. Being Greek, the concept of making sacrifices to the gods and not angering them is central to her belief system, even though she is a modern woman. But that heritage of Greek history, myth and philosophy is part of who she is, so when Julian dies while swimming off the Greek island of Naxos, Marina can’t shake the feeling that she has angered the goddess Persephone in some way. When she finds the parallels of the cult of Persephone and Demeter as part of Fosca’s teachings to The Maidens, the coincidence seems too frightening and sinister and she begins to unconsciously project hostile emotions onto Fosca.

SPOILER ALERT: Fosca is not the murderer, and this is quite obvious throughout the book because he is so clearly the focus of the investigation and because Marina is convinced of his guilt. Now, what fun would that be if the character who is clearly the culprit actually turned out to be the murderer? Boring! Who the actual murderer is, and how this person came to be a killer, however, is a fascinating couple of twists that I didn’t see coming. And there are a few excellent little Easter eggs connecting this book to Michaelides’s previous novel The Silent Patient, which is another great mystery/psychological puzzle. Overall, a good – not great – read that offers some fascinating psychological connections to ancient Greece and speaks to the power of childhood, love, memory and death as significant markers in all our lives.

Marina is guided in many ways by her longtime friendship with her former graduate advisor Clarissa, an older, eccentric professor who has student meetings over fine wine and has become a mother figure to Marina since her college days. She is quite an entertaining character, and I found myself wishing my academic adviser had been half as fun. Mine was the world’s most boring academic one could ever hope not to meet. God, he was a stick in the mud. Also, he wore suspenders, bow ties and paisley socks. I used to wonder who the hell dressed him each day. But I digress. In one scene, Marina takes her niece Zoe to meet with Clarissa and discuss Fosca and The Maidens at the faculty’s very exclusive club over breakfast, and I was inspired by this unusual (for me, anyway) dish of fish, rice and eggs.

She contemplated the various options laid out before them. “But not today. Today, kedgeree, don’t you think? Good old-fashioned comfort food. So reassuring. Haddock, eggs, and rice. Can’t go wrong with that.”

Kedgeree is a dish that actually originated in India and was brought back to Great Britain in the late 1700s. The original dish was a combination of lentils, rice, fried onions and ginger. When the Brits appropriated the recipe for themselves, they omitted the lentils and substituted fish – usually haddock – and eggs were added as garnish. I actually found this dish to be quite symbolic and appropriate for this book, given the focus on Demeter, and the connections between life and death. Eggs are a strong symbol of life across all cultures, rice is a grain that is harvested across cultures, and all cultures, particularly the Greek, eat seafood as a way of life. So I made this dish, substituting salmon for the haddock, which I find much too strong. This is a method I got from Nigella Lawson, Goddess of The Kitchen on Earth and my own personal cooking influence and girl crush.

INGREDIENTS
4 salmon fillets, skin on
2 limes, zested and juiced
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon garlic olive oil
1 small red onion, finely diced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 cups basmati rice
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced lengthwise into 4 pieces per egg
Fish sauce and ponzu soy sauce

METHOD
Poach the salmon fillets in water, lime zest and lime juice for about 10 minutes, then set aside to cool. Save the salmon poaching water.

In a skillet, heat the butter and garlic oil, then add the cumin, coriander and diced onion, and a dash of salt. Cook gently until the onions are browned and crispy, but not burned.

Pour the buttery onions and the rice into a rice cooker, give it a good stir, then add the turmeric. Pour over the poaching liquid and cook the rice for about 25 minutes.

While the rice is cooking, take the skin off the cooked salmon and fork it into small chunks.

When the rice is nicely cooked, fluff with a fork and taste for seasoning, then add the flaked salmon to the rice, stir and taste again for seasoning. Add more salt and pepper if necessary.

Garnish the rice and fish with the hard-boiled egg slices., then pour over some fish sauce and ponzu soy sauce, both of which give salty, citrusy umami flavor. Plate up and enjoy! It’s a lovely dish, not overly strong and the cumin and coriander give it a nice, earthy punch. I think those vengeful goddesses Demeter and Persephone would certainly approve.

4 thoughts on “The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

  1. It sounds like a good book, by your description High British old schools like Cambridge, and the Persephone myth, and your passion to recreate the recipes that may appears as the meals mentioned at the book.
    Good effort!
    My best wishes to you!😊

    Liked by 1 person

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