The novel cure: Literary prescriptions for being the golden boy or girl


Ailment: Golden boy, being the

Cure: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Everyone envies the golden boy/girl. He generally has both looks and talent. Doted upon by all, he can't help but live a happy life, right? Wrong! As many an erstwhile golden boy/girl will testify, a childhood spent basking in the sun can lead to a self-destructive bent later on.

Whether this is because golden boys become addicted to attention, and can't stop craving it; or because they have a perverse need to suffer, to prove they're human like everybody else, is hard to say. Achilles, the shiny-haired hero of Madeline Miller's re-telling of The Iliad, is a model both of how one might live a grounded life despite one's goldenness – and how to dash it all on the rocks by not knowing when enough glory is enough.

Achilles is not, in fact, human like everyone else. His mother is a goddess, the wily sea nymph Thetis. It is from her that he has inherited his superhuman speed and strength. When our narrator, the exiled prince Patroclus, first sees Achilles throw a spear, juggle figs, and play the lyre, he knows he's in the presence of someone extraordinary. That Achilles is also lacking in vanity and committed to Patroclus makes him even more endearing. The two meet as 10-year-olds, and the deep friendship and erotic bond that evolves between them lies at the heart of this irresistibly romantic novel.

Achilles' commitment to the un-golden Patroclus is what makes it possible for him to live a normal, happy life. Of course he blows it. When presented with the choice of living out his days in relative obscurity with Patroclus or dying a glorious death on the battlefields of Troy, he shows his weak heel. Oh golden boys and girls, learn from Achilles. Leave glory-chasing to the vain and the foolish, find your Patroclus, and live happily ever after with your feet firmly rooted to the ground.

'The Novel Cure, An A-Z of Literary Remedies' (Canongate, £17.99);