The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood returns with a shrewd, funny, and insightful retelling of the myth of Odysseus from the point of view of Penelope. Describing her own remarkable vision, the author writes in the foreword, “I’ve chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus, which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of The Odyssey: What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? The story as told in the Odyssey doesn’t hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.”
Review: Honestly, if this book hadn’t been written by Margaret Atwood, I probably wouldn’t have read it. It’s a retelling of The Odyssey, and I usually don’t like retellings for two reasons.
Reason 1: They stick too close to the original story, and then they are predictable. If I already read a story once, I usually don’t want to read it again in a slightly different form.
Reason 2: They stray too far from the original story, and then they are not a retelling. They’re an original story with some vague similarities to another story.
As you can probably see, it’s nearly impossible to impress me with a retelling. That’s why I usually avoid them. I decided to give The Penelopiad a shot because it’s Margaret Atwood. If anybody can pull off a retelling, she can.
This novel retells The Odyssey from the point-of-view of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. It tries to answer all the questions that are left unanswered in the original myth. Who is Penelope? What was she doing during those twenty years when her husband was fighting wars, banging goddesses, and getting lost? How did she really feel about the suitors who came to compete for her hand in marriage? And, most importantly, what role did she play in the murders of her “maids,” the twelve slave girls?
“Daughters of Naiads were a dime a dozen in those days; the place was crawling with them. Nevertheless, it never hurts to be of semi-divine birth. Or it never hurts immediately.” – The Penelopiad
I read The Odyssey for the first time when I was in college. I remember thinking that Odysseus is less of a hero and more of a colossal jerk. He disappears for twenty years because he keeps getting himself into trouble. Then he randomly shows up at home, slaughters all the dudes who are trying to marry his wife, murders the slaves who were “disloyal” to him, and interrogates his wife to make sure she didn’t cheat on him while he was gone. Um . . . dude?! You went to war and disappeared for twenty years. Everybody assumed you were dead. Give them a break.
|My review of The Odyssey.|
In Margaret Atwood’s version of the tale, Odysseus isn’t a hero. Penelope has doubts about his over-the-top war stories, and she’s traumatized by the murders of her slaves, who were her friends and secret allies. They distracted the suitors and helped her escape from unwanted male attention. They made Penelope’s life less miserable while Odysseus was missing. Then Odysseus returns and murders them all. Understandably, Penelope is a bit angry at her husband in this story.
“Also, if a man takes pride in his disguise skills, it would be a foolish wife who would claim to recognize him: it's always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.” – The Penelopiad
Like all of Atwood’s books, this one is quirky and full of smart wordplay. Penelope’s chapters are written in prose, but the other chapters are written in verse and narrated by a Greek Chorus of murdered slave girls. The Odyssey is written in verse, so I appreciate that Atwood wrote part of her retelling that way. It’s both creative and bizarre.
Remember when I said I don’t like retellings? This book is good, but it didn’t change my mind about retellings. For me, this novel is too close to the original Odyssey. I like that Penelope and her servants have backstories, but there were times when I felt like I was just reading a summary of The Odyssey. I wish this book moved farther away from the original. There isn’t much in this retelling that’s really different or surprising.
I also wish this story addressed the miscommunication issues between Penelope and Odysseus. The slaves weren’t being disloyal to Odysseus. They were following Penelope’s orders. I understand that Odysseus didn’t consult Penelope before he murdered her maids, but why didn’t she bring it up afterward? She’s just going to spend the rest of her life being silently angry at him?
This isn’t my favorite Atwood book, but I know she’s written other retellings, and I’m curious about those. I’ll get around to reading them someday.
“Happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked” – The Penelopiad
TL;DR: Good for hardcore fans of Margaret Atwood or The Odyssey. If you’re not either of those things, you probably won’t miss much by skipping this one.