Written by Margaret Atwood
Reviewed by Clara M. (age 17)
Throughout Homer's epic poem the Odyssey, Odysseus is portrayed as the brave, cunning hero of the Trojan War, who seeks to return to Ithaca and his wife, Penelope. After angering Poseidon, he is condemned to roam the Mediterranean Sea for fourteen years: only after outwitting the curse can he return to his home and family. His wife, Penelope, awaits the return of Odysseus with faith and patience, despite numerous suitors who insist Odysseus is dead. Atwood's the Penelopiad, however, tells a different aspect of the story: Penelope's. Was she truly the faithful wife she is made out to be? How did Ithaca remain prosperous, despite the absence of its lord? In the words of Margaret Atwood: "What was Penelope herself really up to?"
Atwood takes the traditional tale of Odysseus's adventure and turns it on its head. While the fundamental style is familiar - readers will easily recognize the "fractured fairytale" style that has become so popular recently - Atwood takes a truly creative take on the Odyssey. The Penelopiad was presented from two points of view, that of Penelope and that of her maids. Penelope tells her story. The maids interpose with their own. At the end of the Odyssey the maids are hanged; Atwood explored why they were hanged and Penelope's reaction. Atwood is often described as a realistic feminist. Her characters are believable because they are flawed: Penelope is one excellent example. As she chronicles her childhood, her conflict with her cousin, Helen, and her married life, readers are introduced to the "real" ancient Greece, instead of the idealized one we are so familiar with. Told in counterpoint with the maids, a tale of betrayal, vengeance, and thwarted social revolution is woven against the backdrop of the Trojan War.
The Penelopiad was thought-provoking. We are accustomed to having our heroes clear-cut: it is rarely a mystery of whether they are "good" or "bad". Penelope is much more enigmatic. She is passive: she is ruled, first by her father, then by Odyseus's old nurse. Even so, her witty commentary and insights provide readers with a clear, although often slightly sardonic, view of the Trojan War and her husband, Odysseus. She claims to love her maids, slaves she raised from childhood, but is unable to prevent their death. After the death, the maids vow to haunt Odysseus for eternity: readers might wonder whether he is as much the guilty party as Penelope is. Atwood refuses to take a definite position on the character's actions; although Penelope is the narrator of the story, in the end, her decisions and reactions are as enigmatic as before. The alternating viewpoints - from Penelope's first-person narrative to the maid's, which is told through song and poetry - makes the tale even more interesting, as well as illustrating the fundamental differences between Penelope and her maids. Penelope's character is reminiscent of Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: she is flawed, passionate, but at the same time, curiously passive and willing to submit to fate. The Penelopiad made me ponder the difference between good and evil people: Penelope stood by while Odysseus hung her maids; does that make her evil? Was Odysseus, for hanging them? The Penelopiad was both frustrating and intriguing: I wanted to slap Penelope and give her a lollipop and tell her that everything would be all right at the same time.
The Penelopiad is recommended for readers old enough to appreciate Greek mythology and to understand the subject matter. Those interested should be wary; the book occasionally veers onto sensitive and mature topics. Readers will be attracted to Atwood's characterization of Penelope and Odysseus, as well as her dry humor and sense of irony. Readers familiar with the Odyssey will enjoy Atwood's wry satire of its major themes. Above all, an excellent read.