The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

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After reading Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles recently, I was in the mood for some more Greek mythology. This book seemed like a good choice, since I have always wondered how Penelope managed to patiently wait for 20 years for her husband to come home. My first thought upon finishing Atwood’s book was: “That’s it?” I really wish this book had been a little longer to go into more details.

The book is cleverly set up, with Penelope telling her story from the present-day Underworld and her twelve maids forming a chorus that comments on what Penelope is saying.I enjoyed Penelope’s voice, the way she tells her story and her sometimes sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek comments on Greek mythology. I also liked that the twelve maids finally got a voice. It’s quite interesting that the reader, especially one who is familiar with Odysseus’s adventures, now has three sides of the story to content with. The way all these different points of view overlap and undermine each other is well done. However, in the end, I was left with an unsatisfactory feeling.

The problem is that I don’t know how much to read into this story. I can take Penelope at her word, admire her ability to navigate a world ruled by men, and get an idea of what she had to deal with while her husband was away. I can take the maids’ interludes as a look at what life was like for women at the bottom of the social ladder. But there are just enough hints throughout the text to make me think that there’s more to the story than that.

In both The Odyssey and in Penelope’s own words, she is portrayed as a smart woman who can hold her husband’s lands together, even increase his wealth, and who can keep her suitors at bay without alienating them. Yet at the same time, Penelope presents herself as a helpless wife, sometimes clueless mother, and constantly weeping, insecure woman. Why? It might make sense in a historical context, but Penelope is telling her story thousands of years after it took place, with a modern voice, and no apparent reason for upholding the historic image of herself.

I also would have liked a little more insight into what she was thinking or feeling when they used her son to prove that Odysseus wasn’t crazy or when it became clear that her husband wouldn’t stay home after his return.

The maids provide just enough commentary throughout to make me question Penelope’s reliability as a narrator. They even go so far as to suggest that she was the head of a Goddess cult. Why would the maids make such a claim unless there was a kernel of truth to it? I would have loved to see this suggestion explored in a greater detail, but unfortunately, there was no other indication of a Goddess cult in this book.

At the end, I was left with a possibly unreliable narrator, twelve maids whom Penelope either failed to protect or knowingly sacrificed, and more questions than when I started the book. I am left a bit disappointed.

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2 comments

  1. I love Atwood, and have often wondered what this book is like. I have stayed away from it, just because I’m not very interested in the gods and stories about them. They don’t beckon to me. But if you had given this a glowing review, I might have gone for it anyway. As it is, I think I’ll just keep it on the back burner. I have heard great things about The Song of Achilles, though.

    • If the subject matter doesn’t appeal to you, then I don’t think you need to read this book. But I can highly recommend The Song of Achilles. That was a wonderful book!

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