Margaret Atwood returns with a shrewd, funny, and insightful retelling of the myth of Odysseus from the point of view of Penelope. Describing her own remarkable vision, the author writes in the foreword, “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.” One of the high points of literary fiction in 2005, this critically acclaimed story found a vast audience and is finally available in paperback.
About the Author
Date of Birth:November 18, 1939
Place of Birth:Ottawa, Ontario
Education:B.A., University of Toronto, 1961; M.A. Radcliffe, 1962; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1967
Read an Excerpt
By Margaret Atwood
Random HouseMargaret Atwood
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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
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.
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What People are Saying About This
“The Penelopiad is a brilliant tour de force that takes an aspect of The Odyssey and opens up new vistas. . . . Atwood takes Penelope’s braininess and puts her at the centre. . . . Odysseus’s 20-year absence leaves lots of room for development; this is just the kind of thing that a retelling of a myth should do. . . . [Atwood] turns a gruesome, barbaric episode into an ironic tragedy of double agents.”
“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 (Montreal)
“What . . . emerge[s] is 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. . . . adds Atwood’s sly, compassionate voice to the myth of Odysseus and Penelope and, in doing so, increases its already great depth.”
“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.”
–Sunday Times (UK)
“Penelope flies with the help of the sardonic, dead-pan voice Atwood lends her, a tone — half Dorothy Parker, half Desperate housewives.”
–The Independent (UK)
“‘Spry’ is a word that could almost have been invented to describe Margaret Atwood, who beadily and wittily retells the events surrounding The Odyssey through the voice of Penelope. Pragmatic, clever, domestic, mournful, Penelope is a perfect Atwood heroine.”
–The Spectator (UK)
“Alter[s] one’s point of view toward [the story], imbuing it with a modern sensibility yet revealing some eternal truths about men, women, and the issue of power, including the power to shape a narrative. . . . Atwood shows with intelligence and wit just how complicated and unpretty love can be.”
–O, The Oprah Magazine
“Along with her presentation of the hallucinatory maids and Penelope’s straight talk about her husband, her girly laments about the ferocious competition of Helen and her queenly worries about fending off the suitors, Atwood’s brilliance emerges in the skillful way she has woven her own research on the anthropological underpinnings of Homer’s epic into the patterns of her own stylized version of the poem. . . . A fascinating and rather attractive version of this old, old story, a creation tale about the founding of our civilization meant to be heard over and over and over.”
“Atwood paints a shrewdly insightful picture of what life in those days might actually have been like. . . . By turns slyly funny and fiercely indignant, Ms. Atwood’s imaginative, ingeniously-constructed ‘deconstruction’ of the old tale reveals it in a new–and refreshingly different–light.”
–The Washington Times
“Atwood’s 17th work of fiction is a gem…flaunts an acid wit and a generous dose of lyricism…In Atwood’s imagination, Penelope and her handmaids are remarkably complex: They are simultaneously ancient and modern, lighthearted and grief-stricken, disenfranchised and powerful.”
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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Margaret Atwood reinvigorates Homer's classic by telling the other side of the story, albeit in a feminist perspective. Well done!
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.
Found the choral interludes most interesting. I asked Atwood about them during an on-line discussion, and she said she used jump-rope rhymes as the basis for the meter. I told her I found the choral interludes to be hip-hop sounding. I also found the choral direction of musical instruments very interesting
This book was, for me, a disappointment. I was hoping for a new telling. A new point of view. And sure, we do get that, to an extent. But the point of view is that of a sniveling, whiny, weak Penelope. I know that she's not portrayed as the strongest-ever character in the Odyssey, but this isn't the Odyssey. This is her story, and I was expecting more. It frustrated me that her solution to just about every hardship was to burst into tears.I didn't hate this book, but it did frustrate me often. And the main reason for that is simply that I couldn't stand Penelope's narration of events.I admire the extent to which Atwood researched Greek myths. However, it disappointed me that she didn't research more of Greek history. I know a fair amount of it, and this only contributed to my frustration with Penelope's character. She was raised as a Spartan, and as such, I expected her to be strong, perhaps with a slight warrior bent. But no, her childhood in Sparta was glossed over, and none of the traditional Spartan characteristics showed through.Overall, I found this to be interesting, but frustrating. It was a very short read, and not horrible, it just didn't appeal to my tastes, and I think a lot of this is due to my knowledge of how Spartans actually were in ancient Greece.
Penelope is left behind when Odysseus goes off to fight the war in Troy. When the war is finally over he disappears for years and finally makes it back alone of his crew to find a bunch of suitors trying to wed his wife. He kills them with the help of his son and then hangs Penelope's 12 maids. We learn Odysseus' story in The Odyssey and The Iliad, but before this no one has tole Penelope's story.We begin with her childhood and how she came to marry Odysseus. Penelope has a warm voice, but it is filled with loss, bitterness and irony at the same time for what she lost and felt she never had. Odysseus tricks his way into their marriage bed and sets the tone for the rest of his part in the story. We also learn more about how Penelope puts off her suitors and the character of her son Telemecus.Part of Penelope's trouble is Odysseus and his trickster nature. She feels comforted by him, one of the few people who comapres her favourably to her beautiful cousin Helen. However, how can she believe anything he says as she knows the lies that trip off his tongue like honey. Her other nemesis is Helen of Troy. She talks down to plain Penelope who always falls short when comparing herself to Helen.One of the best things about it is every now and then we get a chorus from the maids summing up the story so far. These take on different forms from a play to poetry to songsetc. It was a really good and novel way to break up the main prose tale.This was such a great edition to the series. The quote on the cover says "Half-Dorothy Parker, half-Desperate Housewives" which is a really good way to sum it up. It like a spot on black comedy. It doesn't affect the story knowing the outcome form the start, it makes it more haunting.
The Penelopiad is a novella by Margaret Atwood as part of the MYTHS collection, which involes the rather interesting process of famous authors tweaking and re-writing a chosen Greek myth. Being somewhat curious about Canongate (the company resposible for this), this was the first of the Canongate books that I read.The story begins at the end, with a dearly departed Penelope spending all eternity in Hades. Here, she tells the reader the story of her lifeStructured similarly to a classical Greek drama, the storytelling alternates between Penelope's narrative and the choral commentary of the twelve maids--who are given no names, or barely one voice. The chilling image on the back of my book--sees the twelve maids hanging from the rafters--for in the end that is all they were. The story deviates from Penelope, who sees herself as a woman who was denied a voice--to the actual characters that were denied everything--the maids.Penelope is deliberately naive, and Atwood¿s dry humour pours into every page. I have no doubts that this book is strongly feminist, despite Atwood stating otherwise. This is probably the books only downfall (and that is coming from a female reviewer!). However, the book should simply be taken for what it is, and asborbed for its disturbing logic and beauty.Penelope is a metafictional narrator, because she describes herself and the story as a popular myth - while this is quite weird -it is very much welcome in a story in which the purpose is to twist and alter the myth (without making it beyond recogntion like THE HELMET OF HORROR does).I recommend reading THE HISTORY OF MYTH by Karen Armstrong (also by Canongate) alongside this book, as they compliment each other nicely.
Great fun! And some feminism, too. I love the chorus of maids.
This is the first book I read by Margaret Atwood and, frankly, I was perplexed. Is this really written by a best selling, well known 21st century novelist? Is this really the best she can do? What on Earth do people see in this stuff!Those are the kinds of questions I asked myself. In answer to those questions: Yes, she is a best selling, well known 21st century novelist. No, this is probably not the best she can do. And I don't expect people see very much in this particular novel.In short, the book was very simple. Main character Penelope was very...singly faceted. She had no depth, and the whole book felt like she was trying to justify herself when, according to the story, she didn't actually do anything wrong. She justifies that she's clever, she justifies that she was faithful, she justifies that she isn't jealous of her cousin Helen of Troy. But did we ever doubt these things? No. Much more could be done with the character, with symbols, with anything!The only original or interesting idea I found raised by this novel was the question of the maids' deaths, but Atwood milked that cow until urine came out, and then kept milking. She continually emphasized the theme without offering any new substance to it; the theme didn't evolve, it just repeated. By the fifth chapter, you are yelling at the book, "I know you're perplexed by the maids' deaths, but don't you have anything else to say about it!?" By the end, you're about ready to kill the maids yourself.All in all, not a good introduction to Margaret Atwood. Try something she decided to write for herself, rather than this one, which she was asked to write for a "myths series" or something of the like. Personal passion is important for a writer, and I don't believe she had enough for Penelopiad.
There's something very likeable about the concept, of course: what was Penelope doing for twenty years without Odysseus, and what was her early life like, anyway? Where Attwood tells us about this, the years of her childhood spent being sniped at by Helen, the wash of detail regarding her parents and her inner life, the idea works very well. But these sections are interspersed with a "chorus" of twelve hanged maids and their songs and doggerel, and these don't work as well - they're interesting, and they are occasionally sweet, but they don't have the profundity they are perhaps intended to have. In general, the story is pretty, but slight - a nice idea, well-executed, but lacking in the depth that some of the others in the series have had ("Girl Meets Boy" being the best I have yet come across).
I thought that this book was actually pretty good. I first started with Atwood's "A Handmaid's Tale" and I hated that book. I literally couldn't finishe the last 1/3 of the book I hated it so much. I still question why she's considered such a great writer, even in this novel I wouldn't count her as that good of a novelist.I liked the concept of this book. Greek and Roman Mythology is much better then her previous concept of extreme feminism. I know people want me to read Blind Assassin, but I really can't stand to read another one of her books.
I've always liked the Odyssey, the original travel story. Now I like The Penelopiad better. This is Atwood at her best, using story to explain and clarify life. The book is of course about today as much as the mythic past. It flows on like water, swimming like the half-Naiad woman telling us her story, moving around and through her life. The Greek chorus of the twelve maids is inspired too. They show the emotions Penelope is not allowed to show. They are the victim-voices, every-woman voices, allowed in death to explain their fates. Every girl, and every boy, should read Penelopaid before reading Odyssey. If Margaret Atwood ever does a graphic novel, this is the one to start on.
I love mythology in general, and The Odyssey in particular, so I was hoping to love this book. I did. Margaret Atwood¿s retelling of the famous myth from Penelope¿s point of view is brilliant and quite humorous. As she tells the story from Hades, we get Penelope¿s take on her father, Odysseus, Telemachus, and Helen among others. You probably have to know the story of The Odyssey fairly well to really get the full impact, though. If you¿re familiar with the original myth, you must read this re-telling.This was my fourth Atwood, and I¿m looking forward to reading even more of her work during the second Canadian Book Challenge.2005, 198 pp.
Atwood's retelling of the story of Penelope and Odysseus from The Odyssey. Well written, fun to read.
A spare, quick read, outlining the tale of Odysseus' Penelope from her own point of view, and his execution of twelve of her maids (which seems quite brutal from our modern perspective) upon his return from his voyages.Atwood's retelling pieces together scattered bits from various classical sources to build a more complete picture of the relationship between Penelope, Odysseus, the doomed maids and other characters in her domestic life. The careful, delicate prose of the main narrative is punctuated by verse-chapters in chorus form, ostensibly performed by the maids, a la Greek drama of the era. It's a nice touch, though Atwood's style is sometimes so sparse as to make the stanzas feel a bit lightweight or oversimplified. But the overall effect is rhythmic and appropriate.I do recommend reading--or at least having a passing familiarity with--The Odyssey and the Iliad before this book, as it will have deeper meaning. But it's not absolutely essential--Atwood gives you some background and fills in some gaps. You'll learn something, either way.In all, the story is both heavy and light at the same time, singsong and dirge-like, sad and triumphant. Recommended.
I loved the artistry of this book; part poetry, part prose. It is the story of Penelope, a minor character in the Odyssey. Margaret Atwood takes the details from that novel and stories from mythology to create her story. It is a lovely book and a gateway to mythology. After reading The Penelopiad I am compelled to dive into mythology.
I guess she should stick to her own original fiction rather than re-wording someone else's. There were some witty lines, but otherwise it just seemed boring. The original was too good! I have never been one who enjoyed overtly contemporized fiction. ( i.e. politically correct fairy tales, etc.)
Let me begin by saying that, while I respect Atwood's work, I wouldn't call her a favorite of mine as far as authors go. But I loved this book. It's the story of what happened to Penelope while Odysseus was off fighting wars, battling monsters, and bedding goddesses. I think I liked it so much because Penelope was so clever and witty. Not laugh out loud funny, but sort of snarky, and still full of good humor.Atwood uses the 12 hanged maids as a Greek chorus throughout the tale. I thought it might get on my nerves, but it didn't at all. I liked it, even if it was a bit gimmicky.A couple of my favorite bits:"Somewhat later I found that Odysseus was not one of those men who, after the act, simply roll over and begin to snore. Not that I am aware of this common male habit through my own experience; but as I've said, I listened a lot to the maids. No, Odysseus wanted to talk, and as he was an excellent raconteur I was happy to listen. I think this is what he valued most in me: my ability to appreciate his stories. It's an underrated talent in women.""Also, if a man takes pride in his disguising skills, it would be a foolish wife who would claim to recognize him: it's always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness."And the whole interplay between Penelope and Helen cracked me up. I could just hear Penelope thinking, "Helen, you slutty little bitch."I think I'm going to recommend this one for both of my local reading groups.
I liked the maids, I didn't like Penelope would be my one sentence review of this book. It was one of those books that I really disliked but in an interesting and conversation starting way, and they are always fun on some level. Penelope for me has always been a much more assured and crafty character, in contrast to many other women in Greek myth she holds her own against a wily husband, against her son and against impertinent suitors. I had never imagined her to be jealous of Helen at all, and saw her as regarding her self as well off without all the ridiculous fuss. All in all I hadn't realised I has such a strong characterisation of Penelope in my head and I'm grateful to the book for highlighting it.I did appreciate the reality of the violence of the maids deaths though. Michael Longley has also brought that shockingly to the fore in his poems and it is worth exploring. The poetry of the maids was beautiful and the chorus device worked well in the context.I'm not inspired to read more of the myths series though, which is a shame because on paper it looks like something I'd adore.
If you remove elements of divine intervention and the supernatural from "The Iliad" or "The Odyssey", you're left with men behaving badly. Atwood applies this treatment to the tale of Penelope. We are left with a woman's life, a woman who dedicated her time on earth to being an ideal daughter, wife, and mother. She speaks to us now from her timeless existence in the underworld, and her voice is bitter and lonely. I thought this was brilliantly done, the social commentary as sharp as that of "The Handmaid's Tale" when it was published 25 years ago.
Definitely different than any Atwood I¿ve read. Told from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus¿s long suffering, devoted wife, about what really went on during his travels ... and most of it is not flattering of Odysseus or, frankly, of Penelope. This story is light and satirical, if a bit racy at times. An amusing and extremely quick read that broke up the heavy subject matter I have been reading as of late (e.g., The Road, No Country for Old Men). Makes me want to go back and read The Odyssey all over again!
This was an incredibly enjoyable retelling of the story of Penelope, wife of Odysseus. The story of Penelope in and of itself is nothing terribly different or exciting, however, as seems to be Atwood's forte, the way the story is told is amazing! She borrows from the traditions of the Greek tragedies by including a "chorus," consisting of the twelve maids Odysseus killed upon returning to his throne in Ithica. Atwood infuses enjoyable wit and levity into Penelope's character as well, rounding out the short book very well.
I really don't think I'll be able do this one justice. I really can't recommend it highly enough. But I'll give it a try. This is Atwood's contribution to the Canongate Myth Series. For those of you who may not have heard of this series, the concept is simple -- contemporary authors remake famous myths. I read and reviewed another book from this series, Dream Angus, by Alexander McCall Smith which I reviewed here. This book is Atwood's interpretation or re-interpretation of the myth of Penelope and Odysseus.She describes it like this in the introduction, "But 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 rumours circulating about her. I've chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and 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 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."Atwood is such a great writer, that she even makes the introduction interesting and entertaining. Then the very first line of the book hooks you and you're suddenly ensconced in Penelope's world. "Now that I'm dead I know everything." Thus Penelope begins telling her story from Purgatory where she is still trying to piece together the puzzle that was her life. I love that Atwood gives us complete access to Penelope's thoughts, fears, and desires. She begins with her somewhat troubled childhood and tells us the story of her life both before and after her marriage. The chapters alternate between Penelope's story and the Chorus of the hanged maids. Atwood brings everything into sharp focus with vivid description and beautiful language."I can't make myself understood, not in your world, the world of bodies, of tongue 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 (pg. 4)."I don't know that I have the answers to the questions that Atwood poses in the introduction, but it doesn't really matter, either. This is a multi-faceted story with rich characters, especially Penelope, that can't be easily pinned down. It would take someone much better qualified than me to actually do this one justice in a review. But, just take my word for it -- this book is a treat -- plain and simple.
This is just sooooo disappointing. Let's forget Atwood ever wrote this book.
The Penelopiad is part of the first set of books in the Canongate Myth Series where contemporary authors rewrite ancient myths (other authors who wrote as part of this series include A.S. Byatt, Chinua Achebe, and Donna Tartt along with several others). In Atwood¿s novella, Homer¿s Odyssey gets retold from the point of view of Penelope (Odysseus¿s wife). Atwood also gives a voice to the twelve murdered maids by allowing them to interrupt Penelope¿s narrative with songs and even a play. I have never read The Odyssey, although I am familiar with this popular myth. Atwood¿s interest in the story centers around Penelope ¿ Who was she? What were her feelings towards the maids who died upon the return of Odysseus? Was she really faithful all those years? Atwood also tells the reader in a forward to the novella: `I¿ve always been haunted by the hanged maids: and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.`Penelope narrates the story from the grave (Hades to be more exact), and uses humor and sarcasm effectively to make her points. Other characters make their appearance as Penelope strolls around the afterlife ¿ including Helen of Troy (Penelope¿s beautiful and spoiled cousin), Eurycleia (the nanny when Odysseus was a boy), and one of the murdered suitors.The Penelopiad takes a hard look at women¿s rights (not a surprise for those who have read and enjoyed other Atwood novels). Atwood uses her sardonic sense of humor to explore how Penelope might have felt before and during her marriage.And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat. A package of meat in a wrapping of gold, mind you. A sort of gilded blood pudding. ¿ from The Penelopiad, page 39 -She also reveals the servitude and abuse of the maids who had no rights to their bodies or minds, and who were used by not only Penelope, but the suitors who pursued her.We were dirty. Dirt was our concern, dirt our fault. we were the dirty girls. If our owners of the sons of our owners or a visiting nobleman or the sons of a visiting nobleman wanted to sleep with us, we could not refuse. It did us no good to weep, it did us no good to say we were in pain. All this happened to us when we were children. If we were pretty children our lives were worse. - from The Penelopiad, page 13-14 -Atwood stands the myth on its head ¿ pulling apart the story and rewriting it with a more modern twist.You¿ve probably heard that my father ran after our departing chariot, begging me to stay with him, and that Odysseus asked me if I was going to Ithaca with him of my own free will or did I prefer to remain with my father? It¿s said that in answer I pulled down my veil, being too modest to proclaim in words my desire for my husband, and that a statue was later erected of me in tribute to the virtue of Modesty.There¿s some truth to this story. But I pulled down my veil to hide the fact that I was laughing. You have to admit there was something humorous about a father who¿d once tossed his own child into the sea capering down the road after that very child and calling, `Stay with me!¿ ¿ from The Penelopiad, page 49 -Atwood allows the maids to explain why they were murdered and they conclude their murder and rape symbolize the overthrow of the matriarchal society in favor of patriarchy.You don¿t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We¿re no more than real money. ¿ from The Penelopiad, page 168 -As with all Atwood novels, I put this one down feeling that once again Atwood has proven why she is one of the most brilliant writers out there. She is funny. She is incredibly thoughtful. She can string together words like no one else. Despite this, I can¿t say this is a favorite Atwood book for me ¿ which is no fault of the author. I am not a lover of mythology, although I enjoy the lessons about humanity which rise from it.
Book club outing to see author speak about this book. Wonderful discussion.