I first read The Penelopiad years ago and I remember being impressed the first time around. It presented ideas that were new to me at the time, particularly about the double standards women have to suffer through in the modern day and in history and myth. It’s still thought provoking and I love Margaret Atwood’s treatment of the mythical material. She draws on sources other than The Odyssey so we’re treated to details about Penelope’s childhood that I’d never heard of before, despite my interest in Greco-Roman mythology. I also loved her vision of the afterlife, with Penelope observing and interpreting the modern age from beyond the grave and through a Bronze Age lens.
The maids are also interesting, providing a different perspective on Penelope’s account. At first they seem like a Greek chorus, recounting their own fates and the events Penelope describes in various musical forms (ballad, sea shanty, lament etc.). Incidentally, The Penelopiad would make a great radio drama, play or film/TV series; I would love to see the maids’ songs brought to life with music. But as the story progresses their version of events start to diverge from Penelope’s, calling into question her reliability as a narrator. It’s very appropriate, given Penelope is a self-confessed “liar” and the whole book frequently challenges the mythical elements of Odysseus’ voyage.
In any event, The Penelopiad is a satisfying read in that it picks apart plot holes in The Odyssey, like Penelope’s failure to recognize Odysseus and his interpretation of her goose dream. Atwood’s version, including the relationship between Penelope and the maids, was inspired and based on these inconsistencies, which I found interesting. There’s even an ‘anthropological lecture’ that deconstructs certain esoteric takes on the myth.
My only complaint relates to the rather toxic relationships Penelope has with nearly every other female character, other than the maids (and look how that turned out). She’s unimpressed with the Nurse, seeing her as an Odysseus toady. She’s ambivalent towards her own mother and dislikes her mother-in-law. And she hates Helen. This is a little disappointing, though perhaps that’s the point. Penelope might be critical of the men in her life, including Odysseus and Telemachus, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a product of her misogynistic culture. Of course, Atwood’s Helen is pretty insufferable, which seems a bit lazy. It’s easy to follow thousands of years worth of writers and portray Helen as sociopathically self-centred and vain, after all. Given Atwood’s reputation as a feminist writer, I expected a more interesting interpretation of Helen.
That being said, I still enjoyed The Penelopiad. It’s fairly short, so it can be read in an afternoon, but it’s so deeply layered you can find something new with every rereading. For all that, it’s extremely readable, which is no small thing for a literary novel. As a narrator, Penelope is witty and a little caustic, making her perfectly suited to a book that deconstructs The Odyssey and the glorification of Greek heroes like Odysseus. I think familiarity with the mythical material would yield a richer reading, but since Penelope basically retells the whole story it can be read and enjoyed by a Greek mythology novice too.
Alternative Title: Penny and her Pets
If a man takes pride in his disguising skills, it would be a foolish wife who would claim to recognise him: it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.