Home > Book, classic, fantasy, Genre, Review > Book Review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Book Review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Line drawing of a woman.Summary:
Hopefully anyone who’s read The Odyssey remembers Odysseus’s long-suffering wife, Penelope, who waited years for his return from the Trojan War, all while raising their son and fending off suitors who were eating her out of house and home.  Here, Atwood turns the focus from Odysseus onto Penelope, who from the underworld of Hades tells us about her own life, interspersed with choruses by the 12 maids who were hung to death upon Odysseus’s return.

Review:
I’ve taken to loading an audiobook on my ipod for those frequent times when I either have to walk from a T stop or am crammed onto a train with literally no elbow-room to hold onto my kindle.  I was excited to see this on the shelf at my library, since I had decided rather spur of the moment to pick one up, and I do love Atwood.  Plus, this is only three discs long, which is good for my audiobook attention span.

For me the story ultimately fails, although I don’t blame Atwood for that.  The thing is, Penelope, to a modern woman, is kind of pathetic.  It’s not easy to make her into a heroine we can root for, the way we can root for Odysseus.  Ok, so he’s a womanizer and a liar, but he’s also brilliant and hilarious.  The kind of guy you want to be friends with, but don’t want to date.  Yet Penelope not only is married to him, but has never stood up to him.  Even when he’s been gone for years and years fighting in a war.  Atwood is a great writer, but that’s just not a situation you can fix.  I completely get Atwood’s fascination with Penelope’s story, not to mention the 12 maids.  I don’t think any woman can read The Odyssey and not wonder about it.  But it ultimately doesn’t hold up for a story.

Penelope comes across as a woman who lived in tough times to be a woman, yes, but who never does anything really to fight the status quo.  She can’t even bring herself to stand up to the elderly maid who takes the run of her household.  Plus, she willingly puts her maids into situations where they are likely to get raped (indeed, do get raped) and then doesn’t stand up for them when her wayward husband finally comes home.  Is it within character? Sure.  Is it something that holds up as the main focus of a story?  Nope.

I did enjoy Atwood’s modern take on the Greek chorus using the dead 12 maids.  I appreciate her choice to include a chorus in the book, as well as how she played with different ancient and modern music styles.  It even left me wishing the maids were the focus of the book instead of Penelope!  Of course, interspersing music between chapters is something I’ve seen Atwood do before in The Year of the Flood, and she’s very good at it.  It’s an Atwood style that works perfectly in this book.

So what does this all ultimately mean?  Atwood’s writing style is creative and pleasant as always, but the topic of the book just isn’t.  I think the constraints of who Penelope is from such an ancient story placed a sour note on Atwood’s work that normally isn’t there.  It’s an interesting exercise, but not one I found particularly enjoyable to read.  I was more interested in it as an academic exercise.  If you’re a fan of retellings of the classics, you’ll be intrigued by it.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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  1. March 26, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    I also read this, and thought it was ok. However I really enjoyed Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin. It’s about the woman chosen to be the wife of Aeneas from amongst the Latins in Italy. She’s a much more dynamic and interesting character. I would say that she works the system better than Penelope did.

    • March 27, 2012 at 9:19 am

      Hmmm I am intrigued but I also disliked the Aeneid so….conflicted emotions!

  2. March 27, 2012 at 8:50 am

    What a shame this book didn’t work for you. I was seriously considering reading this book last year as part of my Read-A-Myth challenge but in the end had too many other books to read. I still haven’t read anything by Atwood would like to but after reading your review maybe best not to start with this one after all.

    • March 27, 2012 at 9:20 am

      It’s very out of style for her. I’d recommend starting with The Handmaid’s Tale or The Year of the Flood, depending on if you prefer theocratic dystopia or environmental apocalypse. 😉

  1. December 14, 2012 at 5:01 am

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