Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and OdysseusThe Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
2005, 199 pages

Almost everyone knows the story of Homer's The Odyssey, wherein Odysseus spends years trying to return to his home of Ithaca after the Trojan War, and how in the meantime his wife Penelope holds off the suitors who are trying to force her to marry one of them. When Odysseus finally returns, he kills all the suitors and also hangs twelve of Penelope's maids who had been sleeping with them. In The Penelopiad, Atwood gives a voice to Penelope and to her twelve maids that were killed by Odysseus.
He told me once that everyone had a hidden door, which was the way into the heart, and that it was a point of honour with him to be able to find the handles to those doors. For the heart was both key and lock, and he who could master the hearts of men and learn their secrets was well on the way to mastering the Fates and controlling the thread of his own destiny. (p57-58)
This is a short book, less than two hundred pages, in which Penelope narrates the story of her life from the grave. The narrative shifts from Penelope in the afterlife to Penelope narrating her life to the maids interrupting with their perception of what happened. While Penelope tells her story chronologically in prose, the twelve maids interrupt with "The Chorus Line" - wherein the they tell their side of the story through poems, songs, and skits.  I really enjoyed this structure, and the chapters "told" by the maids were the highlight of the book for me.

Otherwise, I couldn't quite connect with Penelope, and because I couldn't connect with her character, the story didn't come across as powerfully as it should have. Other than the parts featuring the maids, I feel like the story didn't add much to the myth of The Odyssey. It's interesting in that it's told from Penelope's point of view, but I didn't find anything novel or compelling when Penelope "sets the record straight." Because I never really became invested in Penelope's version of the story, I didn't really gain much from this retelling.

I feel like this review is sounding more negative than I really mean it to - I did enjoy this book and am glad I read it.  The maids' sections really made the book for me, and even though I thought the retelling as a whole was somewhat lackluster, it was still a worthwhile read.
Under the old rules only important people had marriages, because only important people had inheritances. All the rest was just copulation of various kinds - rape or seductions, love affairs, one night stands, with gods who said they were shepherds or shepherds who said they were gods. Occasionally a goddess might get mixed up in it too, dabble around in perishable flesh like a queen playing at milkmaids, but the reward for the man was a shortened life and often a violent death. Immortality and mortality didn't mix well:  it was fire and mud, only the fire always won.

The gods were never averse to making a mess. In fact they enjoyed it. To watch some mortal with his or her eyes frying in their sockets through an overdose of god-sex made them shake with laughter. There was something childish about the gods, in a nasty way. I can say this now because I no longer have a body, I'm beyond that kind of suffering, and the gods aren't listening anyway. As far as I can tell they've gone to sleep. In your world, you don't get visitations from the gods the way people used to unless you're on drugs. (p23-24)


  1. Interesting. While have collected some of Atwood's earlier titles, I haven't followed her as much in recent years. In fact, I wasn't even aware of this one! Thanks for the review.

  2. I haven't heard of this one either. I guess it's one of Atwood's least know books, maybe? I've read two of her books so far, so maybe I'll get around to reading The Penelopiad soon. Great review!

    from Une Parole

  3. It sounds pretty good. That's too bad that u didn't like it that much, but since you didn't regret reading it- i might give it a try. I love the cover!

  4. I'm not that familiar with The Odyssey. I was supposed to have read it in school, but I didn't. I like Atwood's writing, so I might give this one a try at some point.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  5. I am not familiar with this Atwood title, but I thank you, for at least now I can say I know a little about the book. Thanks for the great review Dana.

  6. Really like Margaret Atwood, and enjoy new takes on the ancient myths so think I might give this one a shot. Thanks for reviewing this, as I might not have heard of it otherwise!

  7. I love Margaret Atwood but this is one thet I have not read - great recommendation - thanks for posting


  8. I have never heard of this one! And your review is great...makes me all the more anxious to add it to my ever-reaching-higher-and-higher-higher-TBR-pile! Especially the quotes you chose - that one about the gods not even noticing anymore basically except if we're on drugs...i laughed at that one! how true!

    thanks for an awesome review!

  9. this sounds different, The Odyssey is one of my favorite classics. I like that this is based on Penelope's point of view.

  10. I have heard about this book quite a bit and am glad to read your honest review. I don't know if I will read it, but maybe I'll check it out some time.