The Penelopiad – Book Review

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. – from The Penelopiad, page 24 –

The Penelopiad is part of the first set of books in the Canongate Myth Series where contemporary authors rewrite ancient myths (other authors who wrote as part of this series include A.S. Byatt, Chinua Achebe, and Donna Tartt along with several others). In Atwood’s novella, Homer’s Odyssey gets retold from the point of view of Penelope (Odysseus’s wife). Atwood also gives a voice to the twelve murdered maids by allowing them to interrupt Penelope’s narrative with songs and even a play. I have never read The Odyssey, although I am familiar with this popular myth. Atwood’s interest in the story centers around Penelope – Who was she? What were her feelings towards the maids who died upon the return of Odysseus? Was she really faithful all those years? Atwood also tells the reader in a forward to the novella: ‘I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids: and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.

Penelope narrates the story from the grave (Hades to be more exact), and uses humor and sarcasm effectively to make her points. Other characters make their appearance as Penelope strolls around the afterlife – including Helen of Troy (Penelope’s beautiful and spoiled cousin), Eurycleia (the nanny when Odysseus was a boy), and one of the murdered suitors.

The Penelopiad takes a hard look at women’s rights (not a surprise for those who have read and enjoyed other Atwood novels). Atwood uses her sardonic sense of humor to explore how Penelope might have felt before and during her marriage.

And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat. A package of meat in a wrapping of gold, mind you. A sort of gilded blood pudding. – from The Penelopiad, page 39 –

She also reveals the servitude and abuse of the maids who had no rights to their bodies or minds, and who were used by not only Penelope, but the suitors who pursued her.

We were dirty. Dirt was our concern, dirt our fault. we were the dirty girls. If our owners of the sons of our owners or a visiting nobleman or the sons of a visiting nobleman wanted to sleep with us, we could not refuse. It did us no good to weep, it did us no good to say we were in pain. All this happened to us when we were children. If we were pretty children our lives were worse. – from The Penelopiad, page 13-14 –

Atwood stands the myth on its head – pulling apart the story and rewriting it with a more modern twist.

You’ve probably heard that my father ran after our departing chariot, begging me to stay with him, and that Odysseus asked me if I was going to Ithaca with him of my own free will or did I prefer to remain with my father? It’s said that in answer I pulled down my veil, being too modest to proclaim in words my desire for my husband, and that a statue was later erected of me in tribute to the virtue of Modesty.

There’s some truth to this story. But I pulled down my veil to hide the fact that I was laughing. You have to admit there was something humorous about a father who’d once tossed his own child into the sea capering down the road after that very child and calling, ‘Stay with me!’ – from The Penelopiad, page 49 –

Atwood allows the maids to explain why they were murdered and they conclude their murder and rape symbolize the overthrow of the matriarchal society in favor of patriarchy.

You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more than real money. – from The Penelopiad, page 168 –

As with all Atwood novels, I put this one down feeling that once again Atwood has proven why she is one of the most brilliant writers out there. She is funny. She is incredibly thoughtful. She can string together words like no one else. Despite this, I can’t say this is a favorite Atwood book for me – which is no fault of the author. I am not a lover of mythology, although I enjoy the lessons about humanity which rise from it. So this was just an okay read for me.

Readers who love reading the myths and want a different perspective on The Odyssey will most likely enjoy this slim book.

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  1. My mom keeps recommending this one to me even though she hasn’t read it yet. I’m a big fan of The Odyssey so I’m torn on whether I want to read this or not. Sometimes I just like to leave favorite classics alone.

    • Care on June 15, 2010 at 12:26

    I adore Atwood but I’m not in any hurry to read this; I have PLENTY of her stuff to read first. I just don’t feel I know enough mythology to ‘get’ it.

    • EL Fay on June 15, 2010 at 14:44

    I read The Odyssey in college and mostly remember it as rather pleasant and Mediterranean. (I think I must be missing chunks of it.) I’m thinking I should read The Handmaid’s Tale before I get to any of Atwood’s other books, since it’s basically her seminal novel.

    • Trisha on June 15, 2010 at 18:14

    This sounds amazing, and as soon as I can secret away some cash, I’m buying the entire Canongate Myth series.

  2. I haven’t read much Atwood, but I do own a few things that I am hoping to read soon. I loved the quotes you provided and think that this sounds like a book that I would love. I find myths very interesting, and think that this very different take on things would be a great read for me. Thanks for sharing this review!!

    • Wendy on June 16, 2010 at 14:11

    Kristen: It is hard for me to encourage you to read this if you loved the classic so much – this seems to be a bit of a “poke” at the classic…maybe a little like satire?

    Care: If it’s any consolation for you – I don’t know a lot about myth, but this was a pretty easy book to follow. But, I know what you mean – I have other books by her that are calling to me a bit more than this one did (I picked it up for a book club read :))

    El Fay: If you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale you absolutely should read that one first…it is a fantastic novel. Also The Robber Bride which is still my favorite Atwood to date.

    Trisha: I have to admit, even though I am not a huge fan of mythology…that Canongate series looked appealing!

    Zibilee: You’re welcome – I will eagerly await your Atwood reviews 🙂

    • Teddy on June 25, 2010 at 21:52

    I read this book when it first came out. I really liked her feminist perspective on The Odyssey.

    • Wendy on June 28, 2010 at 06:56

    Teddy: I like Atwood’s feminist perspective in ALL her books!! I agree, though, this one was interesting even if I didn’t love it.

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