Monday, May 30, 2011

"Now that I'm dead I know everything."

A couple of weeks ago, Bellezza and Col decided to read Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad together and invited anyone who wanted to join them. I've had this one on the shelf for a while in a box set with a couple of other books in the Canongate Myths series. The purpose of this series is to "[retell] a myth in a contemporary and memorable way". As I had yet to remove the plastic wrap from the box, I took advantage of the opportunity to fit this slim volume into my reading schedule.

The Penelopiad is a retelling of the Odysseus myth from two alternate points of view -- that of Penelope, Odysseus' wife, and, in the form of a Greek chorus, that of the twelve servant girls that were hung when Odysseus returned from his voyage. Penelope's portion is told from a modern point of view and in a semi-modern voice, as she walks eternally through the fields of asphodel in the afterlife. She begins with her birth, then her marriage to Odysseus and finally her long wait while he was away for twenty years. She tells which portions of the myth were accurate and which were a misinterpretation of the actual facts.

I thought this was a clever little novella that seemed to lose its way a bit toward the end when it delved too much into modern day feminist interpretations of Odysseus' behavior. As The Odyssey is one of my favorite stories, I was a bit concerned about the possible demonization of Odysseus but I thought that Penelope was quite fair in her descriptions of him. The chorus of dead servant girls, on the other hand, were less amusing and I wasn't sure whether they were trustworthy or just vindictive and angry in their interpretations of events. I'll be interested to see how the other readers in the group felt about this.

I think that the book contains enough summary information to be readable even by those who haven't read The Odyssey or are only generally familiar with the story. But, as you can imagine, the story is enhanced with a deeper knowledge of the original myth.

Skirting Charybdis,

Support our site and buy The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus on Amazon or find it at your local library. We bought our own copy.


  1. I loved this books, one of my favourite Atwood books, but I have no knowledge of the underlying myth so I had nothing to compare it to.

    Possibly this worked in my favour?

  2. I do want to read more Atwood, and this one is on the list. Loved The Handmaid's Tale.

  3. I've only loved The Handmaid's Tale of the books I've tried to read by Atwood (which is several of them), but this looks like an agreeable second Atwood for me to love. I love the Odyssey! And I have loved Margaret Atwood before in my life. It should be perfect.

    (Have you read the Karen Armstrong introduction to the series? Someone at work gave me her copy, and I'm excited about it.)

  4. I downloaded this from the iBookstore as it was free, back in January. However, I still haven't read it, but I think I'd like to read The Odyssey prior to reading this. Thanks for the review.

  5. This was the first book I chose for bookclub - I really enjoyed it, but the majority of my bookclub didn't, one person much preferred the original myth. I haven't read Homer's Odyssey yet, but I do have a copy on my TBR shelf.

    As for the chorus, it certainly ends the book on a very dark tone, but I felt it worked in that it did make you question Odysseus' motives for his actions.

    One point about this book - it has some wonderful humour in it, especially at the beginning, with the description of Penelope's cousin, the infamous Helen (of Troy)

    Jenny, I have the intro by Karen Armstrong - highly recommended. I have several other books in this series too, including Weight by Jeantte Winterson, The Helmet of Horror by Victor Pelevin and Boy Meets Girl by Ali Smith.

  6. It's interesting that you say the chorus girls may have been untrustworthy, or just vindictive and angry. Personally, I found them amusing in their rhyming verse, and likened them to a high school cheerleading squad which is not to be taken seriously. Pretty, and noisy, that's about it. :)

    Sadly, I do not have the background knowledge of the Odyssey, which is really embarrassing to me. So, I went into this rather cold turkey, only knowing that Penelope has always been regarded as the paragon of faithfulness. I liked how Atwood gave her a contemporary voice, which was believable to me, and I loved the sarcasm. True, it did veer off into feminism issues a bit too much for my likibng as well.

    Thanks for reading along; I found your thoughts so valuable!

  7. I loved this review. It's funny, I agree that the Maids are not sympathetic, but I thought that might have been on purpose. I agree with Bellezza -- I loved that Atwood gave Penelope such a contemporary voice. But I have to admit I loved the exploration of of feminism in the book. In fact, I thought it might have been part of why Atwood wrote the book in the first place! Thanks so much for reading with us!

  8. This is one that has been on my list since...probably the very first Once Upon a Time Challenge. So, about 5 years. I'm ashamed I haven't gotten to it yet. I sometimes worry about books like this bagging to heavily on the male. I'm all for strong female characters and literature asserting a feminine perspective, I just always hope that books like this don't make the same mistake male focused literature has over the years, belittling the opposite sex. I appreciate reading a female authors work and feeling that I'm being educated and having my ideas challenged without feeling like I'm being looked down upon. That is one of the reasons I enjoy Angela Carters work so much.

    This one is still on my list, and the more I read others' reviews of it the more I know it will not be moving off that list, unless it is to finally read it. :)

  9. I loved this book!Read it a couple of years ago when it first came out, and it now belongs to book club:-)

  10. Becky - This was actually my first Atwood! It seemed like an easy way to be introduced to her. And I bet it was much easier to read as just one of her books if you hadn't read The Odyssey.

    Diane - This is an incredibly quick read so definitely worth it if you are remotely interested.

    Jenny - I love The Odyssey like you do and so this was both good and bad. And I haven't read the Armstrong introduction. I'll look for it!

    anothercookie - If you are planning to read The Odyssey, I would definitely suggest reading it first -- not necessary but a richer experience.

    Tracy - There will definitely be a range of reaction to this book. I questioned Odysseus but by the end I was also questioning Penelope, which I didn't expect. And there was some good humor in it!

    Bellezza - Interesting indeed! I thought they started out much lighter than they ended. And I enjoyed the modern voice too.

    Col - Oh, I'm sure the feminism was meant to be there. I just thought it was a bit dry and technical toward the end. Thanks for having this read-along!

    Carl - It really didn't seem *that* heavy-handed against males. The females were abused just as much! I hope you do read it at some point. I would love to read your thoughts on it.

    so not - Awesome! I can't believe it took me this long to get to it (but I say that about a lot of books because I just have too many on my radar).

  11. That was a great first line, wasn't it?
    I felt like the only one completely demonized was Helen. I didn't really grasp everything about the maids--what their purpose was, other than as Atwood describes in the notes at the end as a tribute to choruses in Greek dramas, and burlesquing the action of the main play. I'm still thinking about them and picturing them hanging. It's such a brief part of the Odyssey and gets so much focus in this book, which seems only fair.

  12. "I thought this was a clever little novella that seemed to lose its way a bit toward the end when it delved too much into modern day feminist interpretations of Odysseus' behavior. " I think you've nailed it for me there! I enjoyed it on the whole but did find myself sighing over the predictable stance occassionally.

  13. Shelley - Yes, Helen started off looking good in this book but then it went south as the chorus started attacking her more and more.

    Jux - I'm glad we're in agreement!