The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

I remember reading the Odyssey and thinking of Penelope being the smart, beautiful, industrious, long suffering wife of Odysseus. I was expecting that The Penelopiad would be Penelope’s story, but I maybe it wasn’t her story in the way that I wanted to hear it. In this story she constantly keeps her opinions to herself in order to keep the peace and allows herself to be manipulated by Bothe her mother-in-law and a faithful old servant of Odysseus. Atwood portrays Penelope as an uncertain teenager who has ideas and thoughts in her head that she can’t articulate to others, and because  of this can’t take control of her destiny. She wanders friendless around the palace and lets the servant have dominion over her son Telemachus. As I think about it now, Penelope has the voice of a teenager (and she is only  15 when she and Odysseus marry), which might explain a lot of her choices but for the fact that she writes it as a dead woman who has had thousands of years to reflect on her life.

Told in flashback, we begin with Penelope living in the Underworld where she has run-ins with her rival, Helen of Troy, the suitors who plagued her in Odysseus’s absence, and her twelve maids whom were hanged by her son Telemachus at Odysseus’s request. Throughout her tale she offers commentary on the changes that have taken place in the world since her death, like what surprises her and how the living won’t leave the dead alone (she gets conjured up through séances).  These tangents I think, are meant to be cute and to provide Penelope with a hip and modern voice, but I found all the asides to be extraneous and distracting and they take up too much of the book.

Penelope’s voice as a character is witty in places— interesting and humorous. She’s a pretty smart cookie but I would have liked to see that displayed more in the narrative. More focus seem to be devoted to her insecurities around Helen, and how lost she is without Odysseus. I laughed out loud when she talks about her misgivings on spending time with her father after he has tried to drown her in the river as a baby when a seer said that she would have something to do with the making of his shroud.

“I found this affection difficult to reciprocate. You can imagine. There I would be, strolling hand in hand with my apparently fond male parent along a cliff edge or a river bank or a parapet, and the thought would occur to me that he might suddenly decide to shove me or bash me to death with a rock. Preserving a calm façade under these circumstances was a challenge. After such excursions I would retire to my room and dissolve in flood of tears.”

That was good stuff!

Unfortunately Penelope got lost in the retellings of other people’s stories. Her story is everyone else’s story but her own, and I considered given this is Atwood the commentary that she is making on women’s lives and how they make their choices. I can see that, but I am a disappointed because Penelope’s mythology seems so different than the weepy woman who is often times telling this story. Dead and buried, Penelope is still jealous of Helen of Troy. Even Atwood didn’t think Penelope had all that much to say. With a title like The Penelopiad I was expecting something a bit more substantial than 196 pages, and the print was huge! This was very short; easily read in an afternoon. If I had it to do over, this is one by Atwood I’d probably skip.

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