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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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Alan Cheuse
Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.