Review: The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad has been on my tbr list for quite some time and I wanted to read it for our Read a Myth challenge. Luckily Bellezza and Col hosted a readalong, and I finally moved this book to the top of my list. I’m a bit late with posting the review, but better late than never I guess.

Now, first up a confession: I have not read The Odyssey. However unforgivable that might be, I like to think that I know enough of the stories to ‘get’ The Penelopiad. This is the fourth book by Atwood that I’ve read, the others are The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin and Oryx & Crake. And they are all absolutely amazing.

The Penelopiad is Atwood playing around with the character of Penelope, Odysseus’ long-suffering wife. Atwood gives a voice to virtuous and constant Penelope and imagines her side of the story. We learn about Penelope’s life before her marriage, about her thoughts on her husband’s adventures (the cyclops here becomes a tavern owner and their fight about an unpaid bill, and Circe’s island a whorehouse) and her relationship with her cousin Helen. Poor Penelope, her husband is off fighting and sleeping around, Helen can be relied on to make a mess of things and her son grows up to be one annoying teenager. Still, somehow she manages to run a household and more official affairs.

Penelope’s narrative is interrupted by the chorus of the twelve maids, who seem to have been on Atwood’s mind a lot. No wonder, considering they were raped, slaughtered and hanged! While Penelope’s status in a patriarchal society is quite low, she is still a princess and much better off than her maids. Their rape is nothing unusual apparently but not asking their master’s permission is unacceptable. The maids are female slaves and as such their murder is all about property.

I enjoyed Atwood’s retelling and her emphasis on class and gender issues, but The Penelopiad is actually also a very funny novella and the last chapter is more than a little ironic. I hope I’m not alone in that opinion but since I also find American Psycho funny, my sense of humor might be considered a bit weird by some people.

Other thoughts:

Bibliojunkie

Dolce Bellezza

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

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14 thoughts on “Review: The Penelopiad

  1. This is on my TBR shelves, too, but I’ll now pluck it off! I bought it because of my name and because I love Greek and Roman mythology, but never got round to reading it. I’ve read two Margaret Atwoods before: The Edible Woman and The Handmaid’s Tale, the latter in solidarity with my daughter who was studying it for university. I enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, if ‘enjoy’ is the right word. Chilling, isn’t it? I remember NOT enjoying The Edible Woman, but can remember nothing else about it.

    Thank you for the recommendation!

    1. Oh right, with your name you have to read it! 😉 It’s really short, a novella, so it’s a quick read, but a great one. Hope you enjoy it!

      I know, enjoy doesn’t seem the best word to use, especially with books like The Handmaid’s Tale! But they are so fantastic AND chilling.

      Atwood’s books seem to me very different, you never know what you’ll get (dystopia, sci-fi, myths). I might leave The Edible Woman for later then.

    1. Was too lazy to look for reviews, sorry. But yours is added now! 🙂

      Haha, who’s keeping count? ;D Have you read other ones than I did? I’m wondering which one of hers to turn to next.

  2. I hadn’t read anything about Penelope before, either! Nor have I read The Odyssey (aren’t you embarrassed to blog with me? 🙂 Atwood’s retelling helped fill in the blanks, and she gave Penelop her own inimitable voice. I love how she can imbue her characters, her heroines, with a blend of sarcasm and wit while at the same time bringing up important issues like, “Just where do some husbands go, anyway?” Or, “How does Helen get off being so selfish?” It was a great read, and the others you’ve read by her are interesting, but I far and away love The Robber Bride best of all.

    1. Hehe, I haven’t read The Odyssey either, but I’m happy to hear I’m not the only one 😀
      I loved Penelope’s sarcstic and witty narrative, too.

      I’ll have to look for a copy of The Robber Bride then 🙂

  3. I liked the dark comedy here and there as well. I always wonder if I have a strange sense of humor, too! I also think it was great that there were those who had read the Odyssey and those who hadn’t for the readalong. I think you notice some different things either way.

    1. Glad to hear it 🙂 I was wondering what I missed because I hadn’t read The Odyssey before, but if I ever read it perhaps reading The Penelopiad before will change my reading experience.

  4. Wonderful review, Bina! It is wonderful to know that ‘The Penelopiad’ is written from Penelope’s perspective. From your review, it looks like an awesome book! It reminds me in some ways of a book called ‘Saket’ which was written by Hindi poet Maithili Sharan Gupt, which in some ways is a rendering of ‘The Ramayana’ but tells it from the perspective of Urmila, wife of Rama’s brother Lakshmana (Rama, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana were banished to the forest and they were having adventures there fighting demons while Lakshmana’s wife Urmila was at the palace waiting for her husband to come back. So in some ways her situation was like that of Penelope’s). Gupt also wrote another book called ‘Yasodhara’ which was the story of Buddha’s wife Yashodhara told from her perspective.

    I couldn’t believe it when I read your observation – “Their rape is nothing unusual apparently but not asking their master’s permission is unacceptable.” When I read your comment – “The Penelopiad is actually also a very funny novella and the last chapter is more than a little ironic. I hope I’m not alone in that opinion but since I also find American Psycho funny, my sense of humor might be considered a bit weird by some people.” – I couldn’t stop smiling 🙂

    I will add ‘The Penelopiad’ to my ‘TBR’ list. Thanks for this wonderful review! And congratulations for completing the first book for the Read-a-Myth challenge 🙂

    1. Glad you liked it, Vishy! I’ll have to look up Saket, sounds fascinating. Should I read The Ramayana beforehand? If it’s a myth, I could read it for the challenge, we’ll see what my library catalogues have to say about that 😉

      Heh, I felt so weirded out by having that woman read my book with me and it had to be that scene of the book! 😀

      1. It helps if you read ‘The Ramayana’ before you read ‘Saket’. You can also read the outline of the story of ‘The Ramayana’ in Wikipedia. It is quite comprehensive and good. If you want to read a book version of ‘The Ramayana’ you can try the version by R.K.Narayan – it is well told and not very thick (around 150 pages).

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