Thursday, August 11, 2011

Review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Myths series)Book Details:
The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Myths series)
By Margaret Atwood
Genre: Fiction
Published October 2005, Random House
Hardback, 196 pages
ISBN: 067697418x

          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.” One of the high points of literary fiction in 2005, this critically acclaimed story found a vast audience and is finally available in paperback.
This book was a very easy read and quite interesting, too. I have never read The Odyssey, (though that would be an ideal goal to keep in mind) but I am familiar enough with the plot to keep up with the many subtle references throughout The Penelopiad. This book was told from the point-of-view of Penelope, Odysseus's eternally-loyal wife, with the Chorus of maids chiming in with their opinions every other chapter.
Margaret Atwood does an excellent job of portraying the character of Penelope in a unique way without disrupting what we know of her from the original text. In this book, Penelope tells her story from beyond the grave, interspersed with her interactions with other known characters of that time, such as her self-involved cousin, Helen of Troy. Penelope balances many opposing traits into one body - from the bitter housewife, to the scheming seductress, to the self-sacrificing devotee - and still comes out as an admirable woman and wife that few could emulate so convincingly.
The chorus of maids served as both a comedic interlude in a rather tragic story and as further commentary of Penelope's story and their shared fate. Irony played a large part in the maids' story and final demise. Margaret Atwood's explanation for their cumulative death following the deaths of the numerous suitors made perfect sense according to the arrogance and bravado attributed to Odysseus from Penelope's account.
In many ways, this book bears strong themes of feminism, despite Penelope's loyalty to Odysseus. Though I imagine that The Odyssey portrays Odysseus as a grand hero worthy of respect, Penelope's narrative of him both in life and in death makes him out to be at times a philandering womanizer with immeasurable luck and other times a melodramatic little boy with an overactive imagination and an insatiable appetite for adventure. The ones who seemed to endure the most suffering in this plot were the ones that were shown the least respect and recognition - the women.

The Cover: The cover is an interesting modern art design that focuses on Penelope, with Odysseus's boat in the background. I like it.

First Line: "Now that I'm dead I know everything."
I think this is kind of an ironic way to open the story, especially since I am familiar with a Bible verse that says the direct opposite. I'm intrigued.

Favorite Quote: "Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does."

Read For: Read a Myth Challenge, I Want More Challenge


Penelope Lolohea said...

This sounds so interesting! I haven't read The odyssey either, but I've heard the story, and I love retellings. Thanks for the great review!

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