Book Review: The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood (2005)

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Odysseus, what a jerkface!

five out of five stars

Aptly named, The Penelopiad is a feminist retelling of The Odyssey and The Iliad, as only Margaret Atwood could imagine it.* Narrated by Odysseus’s long-suffering wife Penelope, the events in Homer’s epics are reexamined from her perspective. Now residing in modern-day Hades, Penelope tells of her early life; her “courtship” by Odysseus (read: being won in a contest like so much livestock, after which time the winner’s spoils, bride included, was quickly whisked away to Odysseus’s own kingdom); the hardships she endured while her husband was off fighting the Trojan war and then making his way home; and ending with his fatal, bloody return, which culminated in the deaths of Penelope’s twelve maids. Among their crimes? Allowing themselves to be raped by Penelope’s suitors. Penelope’s accounts are interspersed with occasional choral interludes from the doomed maids – who, like their mistress, cannot be silenced, even in death.

Even if your knowledge of The Odyssey begins and ends with 10th grade English class (guilty as charged!), there’s still much to enjoy in The Penelopiad. (Though the greater your background, the more improved your reading.) A novella, The Penelopiad is a disappointingly slim volume – my paperback copy weighs in at just 193 pages, with generous margins. Given the heft of the source material, I wish Atwood’s retelling was bit longer. For example, the years of the Trojan war – when Penelope was managing Odysseus’s kingdom on her own, at a time when it was unusual for women to do so – was glossed over in just a few pages. It would have been nice to visit Penelope during this period in her life, to see how she “done the impossible,” so to speak. (Any Browncoats in the house?)

Ditto: the maids. Maligned as they were by Odysseus and his son Telemachus, they deserve more of a voice than they were afforded.

While I’m tempted to deduct one start for brevity, I can’t seem to bring myself to do so. The Penelopiad has quickly become one of my favorite Atwood books, right behind the Mad Adam trilogy (to be fair, I’d rather the author spend her limited time working on the third installation, as opposed to a longer version of The Penelopiad!) and The Handmaid’s Tale. After suffering through both The Odyssey and The Iliad in high school, I hope more teachers add The Penelopiad to their course outline. Had women’s perspectives been more prominently featured, I might have taken a greater interest in some of these “classics.”

* Though it’s interesting to note that Atwood herself doesn’t consider The Penelopiad “feminist”: “I wouldn’t even call it feminist. Every time you write something from the point of view of a woman, people say that it’s feminist.” Touché, Margaret!

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