The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s reconsideration of Homer’s classic The Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. Penelope narrates her story from Hades, where she and her contemporaries are spending eternity, with the occasional visit to Earth and modern times.
Penelope tells her story, starting from her childhood, before Odysseus was ever in her picture. We learn about her family, how her mother, a Naiad (water nymph) was more interested in playing with sea creatures than parenting a daughter, and her father, the king, tried to drown her when she was a small child.
You can see by what I’ve told you that I was a child who learned early the virtues – if such they are – of self-sufficiency. I could see that I would have to look out for myself in the world. I could hardly count on family support.
Penelope does her readers a favor by reminding them of elements of the traditional telling of The Odyssey, so if you haven’t looked at the poem since high school, you’ll be fine. She then tells you what really happened. Of course, there’s a bit of a problem completely trusting her take, as she’s not exactly a reliable narrator. But why should she be? We’ve been hearing a slanted take on the story for millenia.
I actually found the maids to be the most interesting aspect of the story. They are just girls who are trying to make their way the only way they can. If they’re favored because of their rosy cheeks, well, they’re grabbing every advantage. The fates are not kind to the maids, however, as you know – they end up hanged from a ship’s beam.
I loved how Atwood not only took a classic myth, framed it through the eyes of Penelope, but then offered the an additional academic interpretation of the story’s meaning. Sometimes I think Atwood’s viewpoint gets a little heavy handed, and it does verge on it here, but I thought overall the feminist perspective was presented in a smart, thoughtful way. This is the third Atwood novel I’ve read, and I’m glad there are many more out there to read!