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Texas Country Town Meets the Ancient Classics

Olympus Texas, Cover

Olympus, Texas
by Stacey Swann

New York: Penguin Random House, 2021.
322 pp. $29.00 hardcover.

Reviewed by
Alexa Nichols

Stacey Swann's debut, Olympus, Texas, really nailed it, knocked it out of the park, hit the jackpot; pick your positive cliché, and the novel did it. This fast-paced, well-written, and highly enjoyable novel includes so much of human nature, that you really feel a part of it. Swann's story and characters showcase the multifaceted, sometimes pretty, and sometimes ugly, faces of humanity. Readers get everything from kindness to cruelty, faithfulness to infidelity, love to murder, and much more. And yet, despite their many faults, the characters grow and become better people. And because the individual characters' stories do not always have happy endings, Swann portrays an accurate depiction of humanity in her first novel.

   As you may have guessed from the title, there are allusions to classical mythology, Roman and Greek, throughout the novel. Each character represents a Greek or Roman god or goddess, and they stay true to their godlike characteristics, particularly their faults. Yet, despite these faults, Swann surprises readers by giving her human characters redeeming qualities that the gods would not have had. Her characters are fleshed out and human, despite their roots in mythology. While these characters may be based on classical mythology, there is much more to them. They are so much deeper that the novel could be appreciated without any knowledge of mythology: it can be read as an excellent family drama, and enjoyed that way, as well. Swann's use of mythology is intriguing, but not necessary to simply appreciate the novel.

   This book is not unlike Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series (with its allusions to classical mythology), though on a much more adult level. The biggest difference is that the actual gods do not make appearances; there simply alluded to. The story centers around the Briscoe family in the small town of Olympus, Texas (set just outside of Houston), and the drama in their lives. June and Peter Briscoe, the heads of the family, struggle with Peter's infidelities. Representing the Roman gods Juno and Jupiter, or the Greek gods Hera and Zeus, these two characters show us the very human side of the classical gods' quirks and faults. This is true for all of the characters in the novel: Hap (Hephaestus/Vulcan), his wife Vera (Aphrodite/Venus), and his brother March (Mars/Ares) Briscoe are caught in a nasty triangle of infidelity as well, and the book begins with March's return from exile, threatening his brother Hap's marriage all over again.

   Swann is a native Texan with a strong grasp of small Texas town mentality. However, there is one problem with the novel that bothers me personally, as another native Texan. Though the dialogue is expressive, intelligent, and helps deepen the reader's knowledge of each character, it is decidedly not an example of small-town Texas dialogue. I would have liked to have seen more "Texas twang," and some evidence of an accent in the characters' words. Yet, this does not really detract from the novel; it is merely a wish on my part to increase authenticity.

   From sentence to sentence, the book ropes readers in, capturing them. Each sentence is meticulously thought out but naturally paced and placed, whether it be a description of setting, a character's internal thoughts, or more generalized exposition. The book showcases a wide variety of personalities and its characters, but many of them struggle with the same basic problem: they define themselves by other people. And as Swann writes, "[w]hen people define themselves in comparison to something else, they become that much more committed to never changing their minds about that something else.” Swann's characters cannot move themselves (or those they define themselves by) forward until they grasp this fact, and the author doesn't make it easy for them. Their struggles make them more likable and certainly more realistic, as well as relatable.

   One of the best parts of Swann's writing style is that she does never preaches. She does not overly explain each character's actions and thoughts; in fact, she hardly explains them at all. What each character does or thinks speaks for itself, not needing lengthy exposition to impart upon the reader the meaning of the moment. The meaning is obvious simply through her well-crafted words and style, and on the times it just slightly less than obvious, it makes the reader think, which is never a bad thing.

   The first book she has published, Stacey Swann's novel Olympus, Texas is evidence of great writing, and hopefully evidence of more great writing to come. The incredibly human characters, the depth of each of them, their ties to classical mythology, as well as the writing style and the story alone makes for a highly entertaining and meaningful read. Readers comes away from this novel thinking about the faults of humanity and human individuals, and how they can all be, though certainly not easily, overcome.

Alexa Nichols is a graduate student at Texas State University.