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The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

In homer’s account in the Odyssey, Penelope – daughter of King Icarius of Sparta, wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for 20 years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan war after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumours, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, Telemachus and keep over a 100 suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and – curiously – twelve of Penelope’s maids. This is what the original Greek myth says….

But what does Atwood’s version of the story says?

In a brilliant twist with contemporary lingo to the ancient myth, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the voice to Penelope… Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making; and to her twelve Maids. Speaking from heaven (or hell or afterlife), Penelope gain a good hindsight into answers to the ancient-old questions:

  • What led to the hanging of the maids?
  • What was Penelope really up to, during the absence of Odysseus?

I read the The Wilderness Tips and The Handmaid’s Tale and this is my third Atwood. It is dazzling, playful re-telling that left me sniggering. Atwood combines humour, wit, poetry and superb storytelling skills and weaves an irresistible tale of Penelope’s life story, in true tradition of Atwood, a vestige of Handmaid’s tale but to lesser degree, voicing a woman’s inner struggle and tribulation of being a woman in ancient times.

You are told of Penelope’s early childhood and how her feminist idea was formed, and I can’t help but to find out this passage describes how her beliefs coincide with mine:

You can see by what I’ve told you that I was a child who learned early the virtues – if such they are – of self sufficiency. I could see that I would have to look out for myself in the world. I could hardly count on family support.

You feel her disappointment of raising her son, Telemachus, on her own and grew up to me a young man who defies her authority. You feel her frustration as Helen goes all out to flaunt her seduction prowess and that no man could resist her. You found yourself warm up to Odysseus because he was such a lovely husband to Penelope when he became an excellent raconteur after sex, talking and telling stories to his wife. Odysseus finally won over me when his mother complained that Penelope was very young (she married Odysseus when she’s 15), and Odysseus remarked dryly that this was a fault that would correct itself in time (pg 60). Spot on, Odysseus! Good one!

Penelope is an intelligent woman who knows her place, suspecting that her husband might have spent 20 years entertaining the goddess, she said:

I was a kind girl, kinder than Helen. I knew I would have to have something to offer instead of beauty. I was clever, everyone said so – in fact they said it so much that I found it discouraging – but cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had.

How true…

The maid’s chorus is especially entertaining as it is written in poetry, combining burlesque and playful drama. I felt entertained and horrified at the same time, it was really a strange reading experience. 

Rating: 5/5 

What I like about it:

A full mark for a re-telling of a myth in such gripping way, for prompting me to pick it up from the shelf and have me spellbound from start to finish. I finished the book in one day. Mesh poetry with playwright and inject a good sense of humour and you get a winner, it’s Atwood at her best. 

What I like least about it:

We were told why the maids are slaughtered but we weren’t told why Odysseus disappeared for such a long time. Where was he? What did he do? How did he find his way back? It’s a minor issue, perhaps it is intended to be a mystery that Atwood did not wish to decipher. 

What I think is corny:

There was a passage that Penelope’s mother said to her: 

Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.

 Beautiful….. But isn’t that the opening line of the Spielberg’s movie The Memoir of Geisha? Not to the exact, but something to that effect? 

The Canongate hardback version of the Penelopiad has a beautiful binding with quality paper and Red page header in very page, albeit a difficult to spot cursive book title that is overcast but a darker background. The Canongate Myth series intrigues me. Until I clear all my current book pile, or at least get it down to minimum, I’ll approach the series with rigour and read them all. 

For more of Canongate Myth Series, see Wiki and Shelfari.

Hardback. Publisher: Canongate, 2005; Length: 199 pages; Setting: Land of Greek Gods. Source: Library. Finished reading at: 9 April 2010


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


17 thoughts on “The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

  1. See the thing is, this is a retelling of a myth and it sort of assumes that you already know the real myth, that’s why it doesn’t go into details for Odysseus. In the real myth, Odysseus is the main character and we don’t know much about Penelope. I had lukewarm feeling about the book. I was very familiar with Odysseus story and the book didn’t give me anything new.

    Posted by mee | April 17, 2010, 12:05 pm
  2. I love Atwood´s works but haven´t read this one yet. Glad you could give it such a high rating! And now I´m super curious and will have to look into the Canongate Myth series 🙂

    Posted by Bina | April 17, 2010, 4:32 pm
    • Do take a look at the Canongate Myth Series, there are some good books included, Jeanette Winterson’s Weight, Philip Pullman’s The Good man Jesus and The scoudrel Christ, Ali Smith’s Boys meet Girls (Or Girls meet boys, either way) which piques my interest immensely… Let me know if you want to co-host a reading challenge with me! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | April 18, 2010, 8:29 pm
  3. I’ve still not read any Atwood yes I know scandalous! Any suggestions where to start?

    Posted by jessicabookworm | April 17, 2010, 7:51 pm
    • If you want to start with her prize winners, Alias Grace and The blind assasin are the ones. But if you want to start with something short and entertaining, I think Penelopiad is the one, but as Mee (one of the commentator to this post) said rightly, it assumes you have read the story of Odysseus. Still I think it doesn’t stop you from loving this. 🙂 Another of her short stories collection are “The Wilderness Tips”, which I love it too.

      I hope you get to read Atwood soon and can’t wait to hear of what you think about her. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | April 18, 2010, 8:27 pm
  4. Yay! I really love the idea of this one, but I’ve seen so many lukewarm reviews I wasn’t sure. Now I want to try it for myself!

    Posted by Eva | April 21, 2010, 1:11 pm
  5. Hi! Thanks for directing me to this review. 🙂

    It’s really nice to see that it IS possible to wholly enjoy this book without having read The Odyssey, but am wondering if you were already familiar with Odysseus’s story before?

    I did like The Penelopiad the first time around but there were things about it that felt odd, like little things that I thought were so trivial but why were they included in the story? After having read The Odyssey, it was just super fun to connect the dots and see every tiny detail fall into place. I agree with Mee that this story assumes you have read The Odyssey and while I do also agree with you that it still CAN be absolutely appreciated otherwise, knowing the connections would enrich the experience so much more.

    (I’m glad I had forgotten much of this story before having read The Odyssey, otherwise my perception of Homer’s Odysseus and Penelope would’ve been skewed! Lol.)

    Posted by kiss a cloud | August 26, 2010, 11:14 pm
    • Nice having you here Claire. I am totally oblivion of Odyssey when I read Penelopiad. I suppose in my case, I have enjoyed Penelopiad for what it is, rather than for what it is related to. 😉 still, I think it’s worth my time to read The Odyssey, some day, and then like you, come back and read The Penelopiad again. 😀

      Posted by JoV | August 26, 2010, 11:41 pm
  6. I just read this, mostly for The Read-a-Myth challenge, and I must say I enjoyed it, too. But, not as much as you. While I relish Maragaret Atwood’s ability to give her female characters a playful, yet often sardonic, voice, I much prefer her writing which is more of a novel. She was very clever in re-imagining Penelope’s story, and gave me an understanding of this part of the Odyssey which I never had read before. But, I like her books Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride much more. Still, this book was better in her hands than it could have been in any one else’s.

    Posted by Bellezza | June 4, 2011, 11:04 pm
    • Bellezza,
      Actually come to think of it I never read Atwood’s books in full length. Wilderness Tips short stores were great, I didn’t like Handmaid’s Tale and The Penelopiad is short just as well. I think I will have to try your recommendation of Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride very soon. I agree that it would be apt for Atwood to write Penelopiad in her own accord. Thanks for dropping by Bellezza! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | June 4, 2011, 11:35 pm


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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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