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  • Written by Annabel Lyon
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  • The Sweet Girl
  • Written by Annabel Lyon
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Written by Annabel LyonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Annabel Lyon


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: June 04, 2013
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-307-96256-0
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Aristotle’s strong-willed daughter shapes her own destiny in this captivating novel by the award-winning author of The Golden Mean.

Aristotle has never been able to resist a keen mind, and Pythias is certainly her father’s daughter: besting his brightest students and refusing a life circumscribed by the kitchen, the loom, and a husband. At first she is protected by her adored father’s reputation, but with the death of Alexander the Great, her fortunes change. Forced to flee Athens and then orphaned, Pythias discovers that the world is not a place of logic after all, but one ruled by superstition. As threats close in on her she will need every ounce of wit she possesses—and the courage to seek refuge where she least expects it.


Chapter 1

The first time I ask to carry a knife to the temple, Daddy tells me I’m not allowed to because we’re Macedonian. Here in Athens, you have to be born an Athenian girl to carry the basket with the knife, to lead the procession to the sacrifice. The Athenians can be awfully snotty, even all these years after our army defeated their army.
“I want to see, though,” I say. I have seven summers. “If you carry the basket, you get to watch from right up front.”
“I know, pet.”
The next morning he takes me to the market. Crowds part for him respectfully; Macedonian or not, he’s famous, my daddy. “Which one?” he asks.
I take my time choosing. It’s late spring, baby season, and there are calves and piglets and trays of pullets, too. Around us, men speak of the army and when it will return; surely soon, now that the Persians are defeated and their king is on the run. I finally choose a white lamb crying for its mother and we walk it home. I hold the tether. In our courtyard, we lay out the basins and cloths and Daddy’s kit.
“You’ll feel sad, later,” Daddy says, hesitating. “It’s all right to feel sad.”
“Why will I?”
He sits back on his heels, my daddy, to consider the question. He scratches his freckled forehead with a finger and smiles at me with his sad grey eyes. “Because it’s cute,” he says finally.
He has the lamb’s neck pinned with a casual hand. Its eyeball is straining and rolling, and it’s wheezing. Its tongue is a leathery grey. I pet its head to calm it. Daddy shifts his grip to the jaw. I put my little hand over his big hand and we slit its throat quick and deep. When it’s bled out into the basin, Daddy asks me where I’d like to start.
“The legs are in the way,” I say, so we start there.
“What am I going to do with you?” Daddy says in the middle of the dissection, looking at my hands all bloody, at the blood streaking my face. We’ve disjointed a leg and I’m making it flex by pulling the tendon. He’s holding an eyeball between two fingers, gingerly.
We grin at each other.
“Little miss clever fingers,” Herpyllis says from the archway nearest the kitchen. She shifts sleeping Nico to her hip—Nico, her blood-son, my little half-brother—so she can pull a couch into the sun and watch. I remember when he was born, though Herpyllis says I was too young. I remember his wrinkly face and his grip on my finger. I remember kissing and kissing him, and crying when he cried. I would lean against Herpyllis’s knee and open the front of my dress to nurse my doll, Pretty-Head, off my speck of a nipple, while Herpyllis nursed Nico, one hand playing in my hair. I’ve been her daughter since I was four.
“I’ll remind you of this the next time you tell me you’re too clumsy to weave,” Herpyllis says.
I slop some meat into the bowl she’s given us, spattering droplets of blood onto my dress.
“Filthy child,” she says. “Who’s going to want to marry you?”
“One of my students,” Daddy says promptly. “When the time comes. There won’t be a problem.”
From all over the world, students come to Daddy’s school here in Athens, the Lyceum. Kings send their sons; our own Alexander belonged to Daddy, once. Some of them are wealthy enough to please even Herpyllis. They will see my worth, Daddy says.
“What is her worth, exactly?” Herpyllis is irritable now. Carelessly, I’ve spattered blood on the lamb’s wool, which she wants for a tunic. She calls for water to soak it. Nico sighs dramatically in his sleep, flinging out a pudgy arm.
Daddy sits back on his heels, considering the question. I make a face at Herpyllis, who makes one back. She tucks Nico’s arm in and he sighs again, more quietly.
“It’s interesting.” Daddy looks at Nico. “The face of a child reflects the face of both parents. Perhaps the mind works similarly? If both parents are clever, the offspring—”
Herpyllis harrumphs.
“Then, too, a philosopher might encourage her interests—”
Herpyllis yawns.
“Or not suppress them, at any rate.”
“I’m not getting married,” I say. Usually I’m content to listen to their conversations, but this one is irresistible.
“Of course not, chickpea,” Herpyllis says immediately. “You’re still my baby.”
“Not for a long, long time,” Daddy adds. They think I’m scared, and want to comfort me. “Years and years. Girls marry much too young, these days. We should emulate the Spartans. Seventeen, eighteen summers. The body must finish developing.”
“I’m not getting married,” I say again, happily. “May I keep the skull?”
“We’ll boil it clean,” Daddy says. “What will you do instead, then?”
“Be a teacher, like you.”
Gravely, Daddy and Herpyllis agree this is an excellent ambition.
Tycho, our big slave, brings the bowl of water Herpyllis called for. I smile at him and he nods. He’s my favourite. Last summer he taught me to suck mussels right from their shells, but Herpyllis reproved him. He understood: little girls reach an age when familiarity with slaves must end. She hadn’t been unkind; she’d been a servant herself until Daddy chose her, after my mother died. She was harshest with me, about my manners and appearance and behaviour, and that was because she loved me so much.
I remember the feel of the mussels, plump and wet, and the salt tang. I sneak a lick of lamb’s blood. It’s still warm.
“Daddy took the whole day away from his school for you,” Herpyllis tells me later that afternoon, hacking with less precision at the parts we brought to her kitchen. She isn’t displeased, though. We’ll have a feast tonight, and soup for days. “You’ll be keeping the bones, I suppose?”
Bones are an excellent puzzle, Daddy says. I can apply myself to them and not get bored for weeks. Daddy knows I get bored. Herpyllis knows, too, but her solutions are less interesting—embroidery, crafts.
At bedtime, Daddy comes to tuck me in. “All right, pet?” he asks.
I ask him if we can do a bird next.
“Of course.” He sits down next to me. “A pigeon.”
“And a bream.”
“A cuttlefish.”
“A snake.”
“Oh, a snake,” Daddy says. “I’d love to do a snake. Did you know, in Persia, they have snakes as thick as a man’s leg?”
“On land, or in the water?”
We chat until Herpyllis puts her head around the door frame and tells Daddy I need my beauty sleep.
“Why?” I say. Daddy and Herpyllis laugh.
At the door, he hesitates. “What we did today,” he says. “Even if you were allowed, the sanctuary isn’t the place for that. You understand?”
His lips quirk. “Why do you think?”
I close my eyes and see the temple, the hush and the gloom and the long shafts of light with the dust motes turning in them, the piles of sacred offerings, the guttering flame, the smell of spice, the priest so cool and glorious in his robe. And outside, in the sanctuary, the stone face of the god, and the gangly-legged lamb led so simply to the feet of the statue.
“Herpyllis will always let you use the kitchen,” comes my father’s voice from far away. I don’t open my eyes. In the sanctuary, the lamb’s death is an ecstasy. The bones and the blood aren’t specimens there; they’re a mystery that doesn’t need solving. I think of the sadness Daddy talked about, feel it rinse through me, but it’s not for the lamb. It’s the gods I feel sorry for. What must they think, that we opened an animal without them today? That we didn’t invite them at all? I imagine their big, beautiful faces, suffused with pain. That little girl, that one right there: doesn’t she love us? What are we going to do with her?
“She’s crying,” I hear Herpyllis say. “You horrible man. What have you done to her?”
Someone comes close with a lamp.
“Open your eyes, Pytho,” Daddy says, but I keep them shut. I’m looking at the insides of my own eyelids now, all red and spidery. “Are you crying?”
“I’m sleeping.”
I get a kiss on each cheek, Daddy’s whiskers and Herpyllis’s sweet scent. She stays after he leaves, sitting beside me on my bed. “You don’t have to help him if it upsets you,” she says.
“I want to.”
“I know,” she says.
I open my eyes.
“Who loves you, anyway?” she says.
“You do,” I say.
She snuffs the lamp but doesn’t move. We sit in the dark.
“The poor gods,” I say, and then I bury my face in her lap and sob.
Annabel Lyon

About Annabel Lyon

Annabel Lyon - The Sweet Girl

Photo © Phillip Chin

Annabel Lyon is the author of the novel The Golden Mean, a bestseller in Canada that won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor-General’s Award, and has been translated into fourteen languages. She is also the author of a story collection, Oxygen; a book of novellas, The Best Thing for You;  and two juvenile novels, All-Season Edie and Encore Edie. She lives in British Columbia with her husband and two children.



“An entertaining work, full of raw gusto. . . . Lyon has vividly brought Pythias’s fourth-century BC world to life” —Boston Globe

“Brilliantly imagined. . . . The storytelling is a triumph. Lyon has delivered a beautifully made and otherworldly novel, revealing a land of kings, gods, and demons that somehow seems as familiar as our own.” —Alan Cheuse, NPR/All Things Considered

“With intoxicatingly earthy descriptions, Lyon conjures a world in thrall to the senses.” —Elle

“Exceptional. . . . Lyon takes readers on a journey they won’t soon forget; it includes love, lust, Greek gods and goddesses, mythology, and more. . . . Spectacular.” —Vancouver Sun

“As Lyon portrays her, Pythias is not the ‘sweet girl’ her father had called her, but resilient and resourceful—a survivor.” —Boston Globe

 “A remarkable novel, not just a pleasure to read but also a book that I expect to reread several times. . . . While Woolf’s classic book A Room of One’s Own remains a brilliant polemic, it is a mere sketch compared to the thickly and quirkily imagined world of ancient Greek women that Lyon gives us in her novel.” —National Post (Canada)

“Potently elegiac . . . Lyon shows with chilling precision just how quickly a life can unravel . . . She has a knack for intrigue, the sizzle behind seemingly ordinary remarks, and she uses this to great effect.” —The Guardian (UK)
“Exhilaratingly original. . . . This novel thrills in its immediacy and the family at its heart, in their love for each other, is instantly, captivatingly real.” —Daily Mail (UK)
“A provocative tale that undoes any romantic delusions a reader might hold about ancient Greek society and thought.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Lyon does a remarkable job of making Pythias, her ancient world, and her eternal problems raw and compelling.” —Publishers Weekly

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions in this guide are intended to enhance your discussion of The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon.

About the Guide

From the award-winning author of The Golden Mean, a captivating, wholly transporting new novel that follows Aristotle’s strong-willed daughter as she shapes her own destiny: an unexpected love story, a tender portrait of a girl and her father, and an astonishing journey through the underbelly of a supposedly enlightened society.

Aristotle has never been able to resist a keen mind, and Pythias is certainly her father’s daughter: besting his brightest students, refusing to content herself with a life circumscribed by the kitchen, the loom, and, eventually, a husband. Into her teenage years, she is protected by the reputation of her adored father, but with the death of Alexander the Great, her fortunes suddenly change. Aristotle’s family is forced to flee Athens for a small town, where the great philosopher soon dies, and orphaned Pythias quickly discovers that the world is not a place of logic after all, but one of superstition. As threats close in on her—a rebellious household, capricious gods and goddesses—she will need every ounce of wit she possesses, and the courage to seek refuge where she least expects it.

About the Author

Annabel Lyon’s first novel, The Golden Mean, was a number one best seller in Canada that won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, was short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, and has been translated into fourteen languages. She is also the author of a story collection, Oxygen; a book of novellas, The Best Thing for You; and two juvenile novels, All-Season Edie and Encore Edie. Lyon lives in British Columbia with her husband and two children.

Discussion Guides

1. What do the early scenes between Aristotle and Pythias convey about their relationship? Why does Aristotle encourage Pythias’s involvement with his work? In what ways does Herpyllis provide a contrast to Aristotle and his expectations for Pythias? What does each of them represent about the intellectual, social, and cultural environment of the time?

2. What insights do the discussions with his students offer into Aristotle’s philosophy (pp. 16–18? What do they reveal about differences between Aristotle’s thinking and the views of others? How do Pythias’s presence and comments influence the content and tone of the conversation?

3. How does Pythias’s transition into womanhood affect her relationship with Aristotle and Herpyllis? What is the significance of the ritual at the temple (pp. 21–3)?  Of Aristotle’s reaction to her first period (p. 26)?

4. In what ways does Myrmex’s arrival upset the atmosphere of Aristotle’s household? What feelings does it provoke in Pythias? How do their positions within the household help cement their relationship? What qualities does Myrmex share with other romantic heroes in literature—or in real life?

5. How does Lyon meld the political and the personal in showing the impact of Alexander’s death on Aristotle and his family? What do the philosopher’s reactions reveal about the private man behind the famous public figure (pp. 43-45, p. 49, pp. 60-62)? What aspects of life in exile are particularly difficult for him and why? What ethical concerns are evident in the provisions of his will (pp. 92-93)?

6. After Aristotle dies, Pythias begins to learn how difficult life is for a woman alone. What internal resources does she call on in the immediate aftermath of his death? Why does she choose not to return to Athens with Nico or accompany Herpyllis to her hometown? 

7. What does Herpyllis’s response to Aristotle’s death reveal about their relationship and the qualities that made her his cherished companion? Why does Myrmex react to Aristotle’s provisions for him with anger? Are his retaliatory actions understandable?

8. What sets Euphranor apart from the other men Pythias deals with? What facets of his character come to light during their visit to Aristotle’s farm (pp. 130–35)?

9. As the life she knows unravels, Pythias discovers deep divisions in Greek society—between men and women, the powerful and the powerless. How do her interactions with Glycera (pp. 126-130) and the priestesses at the temple of Artemis (pp. 138–40, 155–56) contribute to her nascent sense of what it means to be a woman in her society? Why does she reject the lives they represent?

10. Why does Pythias choose to work with the midwife (and abortionist) Clea? How does it help her integrate the teachings of her childhood and the knowledge and awareness she has developed as a young woman?

11. What do the appearances of Artemis (pp. 159–60) and Tycho’s apparent possession (pp. 170–72) demonstrate about the line between the real and the fantastical in ancient culture? If you are familiar with Greek myths or classic plays that portray interactions between humans and gods, discuss how the encounters in The Sweet Girl fit into the tradition.

12. In what ways do the divine intercession and other mysterious events in the novel symbolize the psychological and emotional turmoil of adolescence? 

13. “There is the rational mind and the animal body…. I understand, finally, that Daddy suffered so because he was practically all mind and no animal…. I am lesser. Is it because I’m girl? Daddy would say so. But that theory doesn’t account for the animal natures of Nico, of Myrmex” (p. 122) In what respects does this dichotomy embody the themes of the novel?

14. In describing her heroine, Lyon said, “For me, she’s on the cusp of modernity. She’s the first modern woman.” (CBC Books, October 29, 2012). Do you agree? What issues in the novel support your point of view?

15. Little is known about the real Pythias. What are the negative and positive sides to reimagining historical characters in works of fiction?

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