The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

( 42 )


"Homer's Odyssey is not the only version of the story. Mythic material was originally oral, and also local - a myth would be told one way in one place and quite differently in another. I have drawn on material other than the Odyssey, especially for the details of Penelope's parentage, her early life and marriage, and the scandalous rumors circulating about her. "I've chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus which focuses on two questions that must pose
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The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

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"Homer's Odyssey is not the only version of the story. Mythic material was originally oral, and also local - a myth would be told one way in one place and quite differently in another. I have drawn on material other than the Odyssey, especially for the details of Penelope's parentage, her early life and marriage, and the scandalous rumors circulating about her. "I've chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of the Odyssey: What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? The story as told in the Odyssey doesn't hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I've always been haunted by the hanged maids; and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself." - From Margaret Atwood's foreword to The Penelopiad
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Margaret Atwood decided that it was time that Penelope spoke for herself. In The Odyssey, the daughter of King Icarus is, of course, the quintessential faithful wife. To Booker Prize winner Atwood, Homer's version doesn't hold water: "There are too many inconsistencies." She was especially disturbed and haunted by the tale about Penelope's 12 hanged maids. In Penelopiad, Atwood recovers the hidden history of literature's most famous lady-in-waiting.
Caroline Alexander
Here, amid the moon cults and palace of women and the returned king, "spattered over with gore and battle filth," as Homer tells us, is fabulous Atwood territory. Unfortunately, she does not grasp this thorny nettle, but chooses instead to blow feather-light dandelions…Each Odyssean landmark is inverted with a broad wink.
—The New York Times
KLIATT - Francine Levitov
From the review of the audiobook in KLIATT, March 2006: Ever since first reading The Odyssey, Atwood has been haunted by the fate of Penelope's 12 handmaidens, brutally hanged without explanation as part of the carnage that accompanied Odysseus's return to Ithaca after his 20-year absence. Having immersed herself in research, Atwood creates another version of Homer's story, this time told as a 21st-century retrospective by the ghost of Penelope, and she offers her readers a solution to the mystery behind their deaths. By imposing a modern-day spin on an ancient story and the classical Greek chorus, here made up of the dead maids, Atwood can indulge her feminist viewpoint and her wry sense of humor, along with the lyricism that has earned her so many avid readers, while remaining true to the oral tradition that gave birth to the epic.
Library Journal
Conceived by Canongate publisher Jamie Byng and launched this year by 30 publishers worldwide, this series will offer the retelling of favorite myths by leading authors from A.S. Byatt to Donna Tartt. Armstrong weighs in with a concise (and, one suspects, insightful) history. Byng expects the final volume to appear in 2038. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

The Penelopiad is a brilliant tour de force that takes an aspect of The Odyssey and opens up new vistas.... Atwood turns a gruesome, barbaric episode into an ironic tragedy of double agents.” National Post

“Two things are apparent when you begin reading The Penelopiad. First, this is a writer who is confidently at the height of her powers. And, second, she’s having fun.” The Vancouver Sun

“Atwood’s putting Penelope in the starring role is a fine and fresh revisioning.... Somehow (it is a measure of her genius that one cannot quite say how), she makes us hear the voice of Penelope, reflecting in Hades on her life, as if it were the voice of the most interesting gossip you have ever had coffee with.... This is a wonderful book.” The Globe and Mail

“Feels like a breath of fresh air blown in from the Mediterranean Sea.... The Penelopiad is Atwood in top form. The woman who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t lost her acerbic touch.” The Gazette

“A startling commentary on the responsibility of power, and of how privilege can shade into complicity. The Penelopiad is anything but a woe-is-woman discourse.” Calgary Herald

“In this exquisitely poised book, Atwood blends intimate humour with a finely tempered outrage at the terrible injustice of the maids, phrasing both in language as potent as a curse.” The Sunday Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781841957982
  • Publisher: Canongate U.S.
  • Publication date: 9/28/2006
  • Series: Myths Series
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 119,546
  • Product dimensions: 4.73 (w) x 8.08 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret  Atwood

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than forty volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction, but is best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1969), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. A book of short stories called Stone Mattress: Nine Tales was published in 2014. Her novel, MaddAddam (2013), is the final volume in a three-book series that began with the Man-Booker prize-nominated Oryx and Crake (2003) and continued with The Year of the Flood (2009). The Tent (mini-fictions) and Moral Disorder (short fiction) both appeared in 2006. A volume of poetry, The Door, was published in 2007. In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, a collection of non-fiction essays appeared in 2011. Her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth was adapted for the screen in 2012. Ms. Atwood’s work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian.
Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.

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    1. Hometown:
      Toronto, Ontario
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 18, 1939
    2. Place of Birth:
      Ottawa, Ontario
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Toronto, 1961; M.A. Radcliffe, 1962; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1967
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

The Penelopiad

By Margaret Atwood

Random House

Margaret Atwood
All right reserved.

ISBN: 067697418X

Chapter One

A Low Art

Now that I'm dead I know everything. This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true. I know only a few factoids that I didn't know before. It's much too high a price to pay for the satisfaction of curiosity, needless to say.
Since being dead -- since achieving this state of bonelessness, liplessness, breastlessness -- I've learned some things I would rather not know, as one does when listening at windows or opening other people's letters. You think you'd like to read minds? Think again.

Down here everyone arrives with a sack, like the sacks used to keep the winds in, but each of these sacks is full of words -- words you've spoken, words you've heard, words that have been said about you. Some sacks are very small, others large; my own is of a reasonable size, though a lot of the words in it concern my eminent husband. What a fool he made of me, some say. It was a specialty of his: making fools. He got away with everything, which was another of his specialties: getting away.

He was always so plausible. Many people have believed that his version of events was the true one, give or take a few murders, a few beautiful seduct­resses, a few one-eyed monsters. Even I believed him, from time to time. I knew he was tricky and a liar, I just didn't think he would play his tricks and try out his lies on me. Hadn't I been faithful? Hadn't I waited, and waited, and waited, despite the temptation -- almost the compulsion -- to do otherwise? And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why couldn't they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been? That was the line they took, the singers, the yarn-spinners. Don't follow my example, I want to scream in your ears -- yes, yours! But when I try to scream, I sound like an owl.

Of course I had inklings, about his slipperiness, his wiliness, his foxiness, his -- how can I put this? -- his unscrupulousness, but I turned a blind eye. I kept my mouth shut; or, if I opened it, I sang his praises. I didn't contradict, I didn't ask awkward questions, I didn't dig deep. I wanted happy endings in those days, and happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages.

But after the main events were over and things had become less legendary, I realized how many people were laughing at me behind my back -- how they were jeering, making jokes about me, jokes both clean and dirty; how they were turning me into a story, or into several stories, though not the kind of stories I'd prefer to hear about myself. What can a woman do when scandalous gossip travels the world? If she defends herself she sounds guilty. So I waited some more.

Now that all the others have run out of air, it's my turn to do a little story-making. I owe it to myself. I've had to work myself up to it: it's a low art, tale-telling. Old women go in for it, strolling beggars, blind singers, maidservants, children -- folks with time on their hands. Once, people would have laughed if I'd tried to play the minstrel -- there's nothing more preposterous than an aristocrat fumbling around with the arts -- but who cares about public opinion now? The opinion of the people down here: the opinion of shadows, of echoes. So I'll spin a thread of my own.

The difficulty is that I have no mouth through which I can speak. I can't make myself understood, not in your world, the world of bodies, of tongues and fingers; and most of the time I have no listeners, not on your side of the river. Those of you who may catch the odd whisper, the odd squeak, so easily mistake my words for breezes rustling the dry reeds, for bats at twilight, for bad dreams.

But I've always been of a determined nature. Patient, they used to call me. I like to see a thing through to the end.

The Chorus Line:
A Rope-Jumping Rhyme
we are the maids
the ones you killed
the ones you failed

we danced in air
our bare feet twitched
it was not fair

with every goddess, queen, and bitch
from there to here
you scratched your itch

we did much less
than what you did
you judged us bad

you had the spear
you had the word
at your command

we scrubbed the blood
of our dead
paramours from floors, from chairs

from stairs, from doors,
we knelt in water
while you stared

at our bare feet
it was not fair
you licked our fear

it gave you pleasure
you raised your hand
you watched us fall

we danced on air
the ones you failed
the ones you killed

My Childhood

Where shall I begin? There are only two choices: at the beginning or not at the beginning. The real beginning would be the beginning of the world, after which one thing has led to another; but since there are differences of opinion about that, I'll begin with my own birth.

My father was King Icarius of Sparta. My mother was a Naiad. Daughters of Naiads were a dime a dozen in those days; the place was crawling with them. Nevertheless, it never hurts to be of semi-divine birth. Or it never hurts immediately.

When I was quite young my father ordered me to be thrown into the sea. I never knew exactly why, during my lifetime, but now I suspect he'd been told by an oracle that I would weave his shroud. Possibly he thought that if he killed me first, his shroud would never be woven and he would live forever. I can see how the reasoning might have gone. In that case, his wish to drown me came from an understandable desire to protect himself. But he must have misheard, or else the oracle herself misheard -- the gods often mumble -- because it was not his shroud that was at issue, but my father-in-law's shroud. If that was the prophecy it was a true one, and indeed the weaving of this particular shroud proved a great convenience to me later on in my life.

The teaching of crafts to girls has fallen out of fashion now, I understand, but luckily it had not in my day. It's always an advantage to have something to do with your hands. That way, if someone makes an inappropriate remark, you can pretend you haven't heard it. Then you don't have to answer.

But perhaps this shroud-weaving oracle idea of mine is baseless. Perhaps I have only invented it in order to make myself feel better. So much whispering goes on, in the dark caverns, in the meadows, that sometimes it's hard to know whether the whispering is coming from others or from the inside of your own head. I use head figuratively. We have dispensed with heads as such, down here.

Excerpted from The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What is your overall opinion of The Penelopiad? Would you recommend it to a friend? Why, or why not?

2. Consider the personalities of the women in The Penelopiad, especially Penelope, Helen, and Penelope’s mother. How are they different? What do they tell us about women’s roles, within the poem and without?

3. Is Penelope a reliable narrator? Do you believe her version of events?

4. What do the various poetic and musical forms Margaret Atwood uses to tell the maids’ story bring to the telling? Why do you think she chose to write The Penelopiad in this way?

5. “Down here everyone arrives with a sack, like that sacks used to keep the winds in, but each of these sacks is full of words — words you’ve spoken, words you’ve heard, words that have been said about you.”

Discuss gossip and rumour / truth and lies in The Penelopiad.

6. If you have read other retellings of The Odyssey, compare The Penelopiad. You could look at Ulysses (by James Joyce) or O Brother Where Art Thou (directed by the Coen brothers), and discuss how each adapts and alters the original. Or, if you have read any, compare The Penelopiad’s approach to that taken by other writers in the Myths series.

7. “The heart is both key and lock.” How would you describe the marriage of Odysseus and Penelope?

8. How does The Penelopiad fit with other works by Margaret Atwood? Does she pursue similar themes here as elsewhere? If so, does she do so in the same way or differently?

9. How is Odysseus presented in The Penelopiad, as opposed to in The Odyssey? Why?

10. The Penelopiad is being turned into a piece for the stage. How would you cast it?

11. What are your criticisms of The Penelopiad?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 42 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 46 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 16, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    An excellent retelling!

    Margaret Atwood reinvigorates Homer's classic by telling the other side of the story, albeit in a feminist perspective. Well done!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2007

    The Penelopiad

    I found the book to be a good read, Atwood did a good job in my opinion of describing what life could have been like in ancient Greece. The book was an easy read, and had some interesting points on what historical events might have looked like to someone from ancient Greece. Atwood also had some interesting ideas on what Odysseus and Penelope where like, and what really happened those thousands of years ago. Some things i did not like about the book was how Penelope cried about everything happening, and like a person i knew who also read the book said 'She must have drank water all day just to be able to cry like she does!' Over all though, i did enjoy the book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2007

    The Penelopiad

    The Penelopiad was a good book to read if you wanted to know the background of the Odyssey. It explained the life of Penelope and Odysseus in their Kingdom of Ithaca. If you are looking for how Odysseus wanted to stay out of the Trojan War, then read this book. However if you only wanted to read this book just for the heck of it, I would advise you not to. Throughout the whole book, Penelope is crying over how terrible her life is. She keeps living without Odysseus and cries every night about it. This book has way too much crying in my opinion. You read a page. You see crying. You turn a few more pages, you see more crying. This book is like a soap opera, in a book form.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2014


    This is my summer reading book I hope it's good!!!

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  • Posted April 25, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood¿s take on the story of Odysseu

    The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s take on the story of Odysseus and his wife Penelope, but from the perspective of Penelope.  It was a fabulous recreation of the Odyssey, with a slightly modern twist.  I like how Penelope explains how Odysseus’s famous exploits could have been explained by myths, or could have been normal but exaggerated experiences.  

    It kind of reminded me of The Liars’ Gospel in that way, making you think about whether or not the Greek mythology (or Jesus’s legend, if we’re talking about The Liars’ Gospel) is truth or situations that were created.  I highly recommend if you enjoyed The Liars’ Gospel and/or The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller!

    Thanks for reading,

    Rebecca @ Love at First Book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2012

    Piece of shit

    Had to read for my nineth grade summer reading. Just about the worst thin on earth. Hate it more than the odyssey. Now hats saying something.

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2012

    Nothing special

    There is no plot or climax in this book. It's just Penelope talking and maids singing the whole time. It is an easy read, and Penlope's viewpoint is interesting at times, but it is predictable and just so boring.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 24, 2011


    A delightful tongue-in-cheek retelling of classic mythology.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2007

    If you love drama you will love this

    The Penelopiad is all about Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. Odysseus is the king of Ithaca which is an ancient Greek kingdom. Penelopy is considered able to get married at the age of 15 so her father sets up the arrangements to get her future husband onto his island. When the many suitors show up, one stands out: Odysseus of course. Odysseus cheats in the challanges to win Penelope and the following events after the marriage are exactly what the quote on the book says, 'Half-Dorothy Parker, half-Desperate Housewives'. The author uses a very interesting method of story transition which, I'll admit, was very refreshing to see something knew. The entire story that you read is a recollection of Penelope. She is dead in the underworld while waiting to see if she will be sent to the good underworld or if she deserves to be sent to the bad underworld. So, the way the story transissions from one memory to the other is that it goes back to Penelope in the underworld and she talks a bit about what is going to happen. I thought this was a neat way to jump from part to part. Now, the downside: there was a bit too much drama in this book for my taste, hence the 3/5 but if you love drama check it out.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2007

    The Penelopiad

    The book, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, was an interesting book to read. It was different from other stories I have read. It had a story where the main character told her life story, which is usually not how a book is written. It also connects with the story Odyssey, and this book gives the other side of it. Odyssey was about Odysseus's adventure from Troy and back to where Penelope lives, and this book was about what happenes while Odysseus was gone. I can now connect on these two stories,and know what happened to both Penelope and Odysseus. This book put me excited and amused me the whole time I read it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2008

    A Twist on the Greek Epic

    The Penelopiad tells the story of what Penelope did for the twenty years Odysseus was away trying to get home. the story provides good background of the Oddysey, the Greek epic written by Homer. However it tells the story in Penelope's point of view, making it, for me, a far more interesting read. it also tells of the stories of the twelve maids that were hanged.the maids tell their own stories in chapters in the book and songs, which made abetter read than them justing directly telling the reader. However, the story was supposed to explain why the maids were hanged. to me it felt like they never answered that quetion. Overall it was a good book, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading or studying Greek Mythology.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2008

    Good read

    The book was very good, telling who Penelope and the twelve maids really are, in their own words. The maids sing in some chpters was humorous , and told the maid's side of the story extremely well. However, it did not, to me, answer the question of why Oddyseus hanged the maids. overall, it was very good, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys studying Greek mythology.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2008

    Very Clever

    Margaret Atwood does a great job of portaying what happened in Ithaca for the twenty or so years that Odysseus was gone. She does a fine job of retelling the saga from the female perspective. This book is, at turns sad, enlightening the reader on what Penelope went through while she awaited her husband's return, and at other times quite funny, as Atwood pokes fun at the exaggeration present in the original Odyssey. Well done.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2007

    A reviewer

    The Penelopiad was my first venture into Greek mythology. I found the book confusing at first but when I became accostumed to the style of writing I found the book very interesting. I liked that the story was told from a female point of view. I found it interesting that women of ancient Greece shared similiar problems and hopes to today's women. Penelope spoke honestly of her insecurites when compared to her beautiful cousin Helen, and how she wondered if her missing husband really wanted to return to her. Penelope also explains her relationship with the 12 hanged maidens whose story is told in a series of songs and dances. I recommend this book to anyone who is a 'new reader' to Greek mythology. Overall I really enjoyed this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2007

    A reviewer

    I really liked this book. It gave you a different perspective: from Penelope's point of view. Sure, most people know the story of the Odyssey, but Margret Atwood desplays how the female characters feel. She also adds some modern-day scenes.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2007


    A really well done retelling of the Odyssey. Atwood is satyrical and eloquent through out the entire book. She adds an extra dimension by having the maids 'sing' their side of the story. Even if you hated homer's version, the Penelopaid will make you go weak in the knees.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2006

    penelope speaks from hades

    most of us know about odysseus from reading the homeric epics or from whatever literature or mythology classes may have skimmed over in highschool or college. most of us don't really know much, if anything, about his wife penelope and the twenty year-long waiting she did for him to return from his journeys. in attwood's book, that two decade gap is filled by penelope's own telling. also, filled is a personal history that attwood embroiders from a compilation of sources, she claims, not all of homeric origin. overall, the book is fine. it does what it seeks to do: tell penelope's tales of woe borne from the isolation that ran like a current throughout her entire life. rather, in it, penelope 'speaks' to us. it's a first person narration, which wouldn't be so bad if it were just that: a retelling of events with some sidebar analysis and interweaving of personal feelings and such. however, mostly, it feels as if the story is second to penelope's own self-analysis. it's written in terms of present-day restrospection of what's thousands of years-past life lived. it's doubtful that it would take this long for penelope to begin thinking about her entire life--though, to be fair, she is most often cited for her patience in waiting for odysseus' return. still, the constant back-and-forthing of the narrative--from recollection to newly-realized connections, to descriptions of her afterlife, to broad skimming of lore--is all a bit slow-moving and, at times, uninteresting. perhaps it's that i antipicated a more exciting telling of the tale or, at least, a more thorough investigation of the story, the legends, the myths, than attwood's feminist perspective on homer's epic. it turns what's good 'fun' about legends into fodder for a women's studies course--which would've been fine, had i thought that's what i was getting into. i recommend the book for those of you who are looking for some social commentary or 'real'-ism of the penelope and hanging maids story. it's not bad by any means. i just wouldn't get it without flipping through the first couple of pages and considering if that's the style of story you were looking for.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2005

    A Twist

    Penelopiad offers a twist to the classic Homer epic, the Odyssey. Penelope is the focus and the murder of her handmaides is the mystery that lingers through the pages and tortures our main character. Fans of Homer's Illiad and Odyssey will welcome this new twist on a very old story, as most fans have probably, like the author, wondered why those handmaids were hanged in the first place. The Penelopiad goes deeper into a character that before was only a part of Odysseus, and shows us what she is doing and what she is thinking all that time she is waiting for her husband. Very interesting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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