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on 29 April 2015
A woman's look at The Odyssey.

I've read the Iliad and Odyssey, but a while ago. The details of Odysseus's wife and her life aren't too clear, though I remember the main story - left for 20 years by her husband off to the Trojan wars, Penelope must use her wiles to dissuade her many suitors from forcing her hand and making her remarry.

Here she tells her story, from a childhood in luxury (though a parental attempted murder mars things somewhat) to her early marriage and short blissful honeymoon period to her many, many years alone with her maids and small son, through to the clamouring and greedy suitors desperate to marry into her money. And her husband's ill-fated return.

Penelope is a convincing queen, naive at the start, growing in confidence and intelligence as her situation forces her to take control. Her story is interspersed with her Chorus of 12 Maids telling their story (of how Odysseus had them killed on his return). The reason for this is explained away her as their innocence is argued by the author. How she does this is brilliant - their short interludes contain not only a typical lament and idyll, but also take the form of a rope-jumping rhyme, a popular tune, sea shanty, ballad, drama, anthropology lecture, trial transcript

For of course, Penelope is talking to us from beyond the grave, she and her maids are long dead and their omniscient narration works well.

One of my favourite lines is self-referential, as the maids curse Odysseus in every way they can, in every form, inducing us also to:

“Dog his footsteps, on Earth or in Hades… in songs and in plays… in marginal notes and in appendices!”

This is a short work (less than 150 pages), but a lovely companion piece to the much more weighty Odyssey, and does give pause for thought about the treatment of women in Greek myth, and how fair it may or may not be.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 February 2017
Penelope”… is how Homer invariably described the wife of Odysseus. I recently read and reviewed Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). Among the numerous takeaways, the author, Helen Morales, stressed that the myths are variable over time, often to fit the particular needs of the teller in a later era. Different aspects of the myth are stressed or changed.

Margaret Atwood is a prolific Canadian writer whom I have regrettably never read before. I do recall seeing her work, The Blind Assassin on the convenient dining room table of one of the Canadians that I knew in Riyadh, who read serious books, way back in the year 2000, when Atwood was awarded the Man Booker Prize for that work.

Sure, the focus has always been on the soldier, Odysseus, who went away to a foreign war, took a long time to get back home due to numerous pleasant and unpleasant distractions, and received the classic “bad homecoming” when he arrived. With a bit of gender-empathy, it was only natural for Atwood to reflect upon that “ever-faithful” wife, as well, as the author says, the fate of the 12 maids that Odysseus hanged – the “collateral damage.”

In the introduction, Atwood calls her work an “echo” to the sixth power… an “echo of an echo of…” etc. First, you had the original event… the siege of Troy, somewhere in the 12th or 13th century BCE. Then you have Homer’s telling of the story, some four centuries later… Atwood says: “Penelope is perhaps the first desperate housewife to appear in art.” Atwood’s “Penelopiad” is a play, an additional four “echoes” later, that was first performed at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 2007.

Penelope is in Hades, with the Maids that have been hanged. Ah, the truth can now come out. Indicative of Atwood’s more modern, “hip” style, she has Penelope declare early on: “For hadn’t I been faithful? Didn’t I wait, and wait, despite the temptations – almost the compulsion – to do otherwise? And yet what have I amounted to, now the official version has gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why can’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I was? That’s the line they take, the singers, the yarn-spinners. Don’t follow my example, I want to scream in your ears…” It’s brilliant. “A stick used to beat…”

There were aspects of my reading of The Odyssey) that I had forgotten, perhaps because at the time they seemed like minor points. Penelope was the daughter of King Icarius, of Sparta, who feared that she might kill him when she grew up, due to a prophesy, so he ordered her drowned, which did not, obviously work out. Penelope was a cousin of Helen, yes, the face that launched those proverbial 1000 ships, and Atwood plays on that relationship. “They were all staring at Helen, who was intolerably beautiful, as usual. Like every other man on earth, Odysseus had desperately wanted to win her hand. I was at best only second prize.” Atwood empathetically describes the lives of the Maids, who are only “deep background” for Homer.

Indeed, what is the appropriate conduct for an “ever-faithful” wife when she knows her husband has been servicing the goddess Calypso for several years? Atwood hints at the answer towards the end. “The two of us were now proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said. But we did. Or so we told each other.”

A 5-star spin of a classic myth.
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on 7 October 2016
I have a thing for mythology… especially Greek Mythology. Anyone who vaguely knows me or follows my fandom blog (runningwithshewolves) will know this. So after reading "The Song of Achilles" (review of which can be found HERE) I was desperate for some more books in this genre.

This drew me to "The Penelopiad" because Odysseus is one of my fave characters, as is Penelope. Together those two form my second Greek Mythology OTP (after Achilles and Patroclus, naturally). So, I jumped at the idea of a retelling of the "Odyssey" from Penelope's point of view. How did she cope in this twenty years her husband was missing? How did she fend off all the suitors? What about her son? How was her relations with her in laws?

These are things I've always wanted to hear about, so I bought this book.

After reading it… I'm left with the conclusion that this just isn't my picturing of Penelope.

The writing was lovely, Margaret Atwood has a wonderful talent of being simple enough to draw you in, but so beautiful to keep you going. I will really need to read more of her work sometime because it really was relaxing to read.

The set out is also good. The little poems and acts that are dispersed in between chapters provide humour in some cases and, for me, a respite from Penelope.

This, I guess, brings me onto Penelope. I understand that everyone will have different takes on her - for some this will be jus what they pictured her. But for me, I don't know, I imagined her stronger; kinder. She hates her cousin Helen, yet they grew up together. There is next to no mention to her relations with Clytemnestra or Pollux or Castor.

She seems hateful, spiteful (though not as much as her cousin, Helen. I understand that people think of her as vain but for me I just don't see it, and any interpretation of her as such tends to set my teeth on edge). And spends most of her time crying. I don't have anything against that for her husband disappeared for twenty years and it can be expected she'd cry. But I didn't think it'd be so often. Her schemes with to keep the suitors at bay are supposed to be cunning (the shroud for Laertes is freaking genius!!) but in this it just seems… so random. There's no thought or planning… it just appears.

To be honest, this is supposed to be a novel about Penelope during the "Odyssey" but for me? It's about those twelve maids. That's the theme her. It's not about how Penelope coped with her husband fighting the Trojan war for ten years, and the missing for another decade - it's giving a motive to the maids Odysseus killed because they were badmouthing him and his wife and his son.

In this book this is one of Penelope's schemes, to find out what her suitors are planning. And I liked that. It gave a voice to the twelve girls who died. But it's not what I thought the book would be.

For me, the plot was thin, the characters were off and the only reason I gave this three stars was because of Margaret Atwood's gorgeous writing.
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on 9 March 2017
A short book, this is smart, funny and subversively clever as Atwood re-opens Homer's poems, especially The Odyssey, to give us a Penelope who speaks across time from a classical underworld but with a 21st century voice and hindsight to tell her own story.

At the disturbing heart of this tale is the hanging of the twelve maids after Odysseus kills the suitors: a minor incident in Homer, but one which expands in Atwood's hands to speak volumes about class, gender, violence. But what's most interesting is not just the commentary on possessive masculinity where women and slaves are owned, but the unwitting complicity of Penelope in this act. Through her silence, through her deliberate withholding of information in her own struggle for power and control in the household, she becomes complicit in this act of violent retribution, one which haunts her eternally.

Despite this sombre event, so much of the text is lit with a sceptical, sharp, self-deprecating humour, partly in Penelope's own voice ('the best that was claimed of Menelaus, once they started putting him into the poems, was that he had a very loud voice') but also in the dazzling array of modes taken by the chorus of hanged maids: they sing, they recite, they act out a trial scene, they play with old-school musicals, and they threaten. Most pressingly, at the end, they become a voice for voiceless women across history who have been raped, coerced, violated and murdered - but it's not a voice of victimhood but of revenge: "We're the serving girls, we're here to serve you. We're here to serve you right".

As with her more recent Hag-Seed, Atwood wears her scholarship lightly as she accommodates a multiplicity of versions of Penelope's story, taking account of interpretations from the anthropological (e.g. in Graves' The Greek Myths) to both traditional and modern feminist scholarly readings. For all that, this is a lively, energetic enterprise - if you know Homer and the other sources for this story well then it slightly slows down in the middle as it retells that tale but overall this is a darkly humorous take on the sources, that seizes on the residual subversion that is already implicit in Homer and expands it into something transgressive and self-aware.
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on 5 September 2013
Atwood's choice of material from "The Odyssey" does not come as a surprise, considering her penchant for drawing focus on the disenfranchised. "The Penelopiad" throws light on the darker and less prominent aspects of the Greek myth. Atwood is concerned not with the adventures and exploits of Odysseus, but rather his long-suffering wife, Penelope, whom he leaves behind in his palace to lend arms to the Trojan War, as well as the twelve maids whom Odysseus hangs with the help of his son Telemachus, when he returns to reclaim his palace (and Penelope) from the ravenous Suitors. These last are noblemen who descends on his kingless abode to contest for Penelope's hand in marriage, and enjoy wanton access to Telemachus's inheritance that they slowly drink and feast away in his absence.

The story is told from Penelope's perspective and interspersed with the choruses of the twelve hanged maids (Penelope's closest and most trusted and the youngest and prettiest, as the narrative soon reveals) from the netherworld, as she revisits her guilt at not being able to stop this heinous act from happening. With the advantage of retrospection from Hades, Penelope corrects some glaring errors to the myth. For example, she recounts her own unfortunate childhood (victim of unsuccessful drowning by her father, King Icarius of Sparta) and informs the reader that contrary to the popular retellings that held her up as a model for modesty in her reticence as she pulled down her veil in answer to her father's plea for her not to follow her husband Odysseus back to Ithaca, it had been an attempt to hide her mirthless laughter: "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!'."

The story, complete with the bitchiest exchanges between Penelope and her cousin, Helen of Troy, who is cast as a self-centred vamp here, as well as Penelope's own tenuous relationships with both her icy mother-in-law and resentful teenage son, Telemachus, sets the background for a rather domestic and intimate look within the much-loved myth. Penelope's own rather irreverent perspective of the gods and deities belies her desperate circumstances as a powerless woman in those times, as she says: "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". Clever, eloquent and biting.
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on 31 January 2015
I've been studying Joyce's Ulysses at University (in particular the "Penelope" section at the end of the novel) and I read this in an attempt to make some sense of it. I love Margaret Atwood's work and pretty much anything she writes is amazing - it goes without saying really; and this is no exception. I loved the fact that what we are seeing in this short novel is the heroic tale of Odysseus from the point of view of the wife waiting at home for him to return. Speaking after her death from the "fields of asphodel", she relates her side of the story and also the story of the 12 hanged maids (who are slain by Odysseus and Telemachus in Book 24 - I think - of Homer's poem). It's an innovative look at matters; and it puts the place of women in Homer's society into context (just from reading the first pages of The Odyssey, you can see that women were nothing more than objects to be bartered with). This version of events calls up some questions which hang over Homer's text, such as why did the 12 maids get hanged just for being raped by the suitors? It hardly represents heroic justice - but then, as Penelope herself states at the end of her tale - it was a different time and the Greek myth has to be read in the context of that. This is a short book but there's a lot in it and like all Atwood's work, it's beautifully written, witty, engaging and insightful. Definitely worth a look.
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on 29 August 2015
I did not finish this book, the first few chapters were so boring, disappointing and bland I couldn't bring myself to go any further and the book has been dumped on my shelf, never to be picked up again. I'd donate it to my sixth form library but I fear other Classics students would read it.

Having never read Atwood before I was excited to find this book. After finishing my A Level in Classical Civilisation I still wanted to read more about mythology and different interpretations of it. I may be biased having read so much about the Greeks myths and writing so many essays about Helen and Penelope and Odysseus, all of whom feature in this book.
Penelope felt 2D and although she is younger in the first section of the Penelopiad, it was still a boring introduction and I was very happy when other characters were the focus.
Odysseus is a cunning man and the way he wins Penelope did fit his character. But their interactions were dull.
I was disappointed to see Helen portrayed as the stereotype most people think of her as when in Trojan Women she is anything but. Penelope saw her as shallow and the two didn't seem to get along very well. However, I see the two women as parallels and would have liked to see a more complex, deep relationship than the one Atwood portrayed.

I can't give this book 1 star because I didn't finish it and perhaps the later sections of this book are more promising. If you want to read a fanfiction like teen novel with predictable and I would argue inaccurate portrayals of ancient characters from mythology then go ahead and buy this book. If you were hoping for a feminist perspective of the Odyssey where the murdered maids and Penelope feature equally and female characters are treated with respect and not as plot devices, you'd be better off writing your own story.
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Part of the Canongate Myths series, where myths are retold, so we have Margaret Atwood’s contribution, one based on Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. Based around the Odyssey, so Penelope awaits the return of her husband, and in the original version has come to be known as the perfect doting wife. But now, with this novella we see Penelope speak out from the other side of the Styx.

Presented as a normal prose tale as such, there are intervals where we hear the chorus, mirroring in many ways traditional Classical Greek drama. Taking in many themes and ideas, as well as genres, so the story that we are told here, by a woman who has been dead for many centuries, does show a certain amount of wry humour, as the story is retold for us.

Did Odysseus really do all the things that is claimed in the Odyssey – or have they been rather blown out of proportion? Was the killing of for instance Cyclops more of a tavern brawl over payment?

Presented as it is here with a normal narrative, but with added scenes from the chorus, this does make for an interesting and relatively quick read, that is quite enjoyable. I would personally think that you do not have to be fully knowledgeable on the Odyssey, or the way that ideas have changed over the centuries with regards to Helen and the whole Troy battles, but it does help if you at least understand a bit about what the original text is, and have a vague idea of current thoughts on someone like Helen of Troy.
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on 19 November 2007
I think some of the earlier reviews of this novel fundamentally misunderstand its premise. Atwood's `The Penelopiad' was part of a series of books that endeavoured to revision classic myths from a new perspective. In this case Atwood took back the story of the `Odyssey' from Homer and Odysseus and positioned it firmly from the perspective of the abandoned Penelope and her slaughtered maids. Odysseus in various versions of the ancient Greek myth is painted as an alpha male hero, surviving the war at Troy and endeavouring to return to his beloved wife Penelope, hence Homer's `Odyssey'. Penelope was predominately characterised as the ever faithful wifey awaiting the return of her husband. What Atwood does is neither radical, nor particularly new many post-modern writers have reinterpreted male myths, often from a feminist or a particular nationalist perspective. Often reinterpretation is a cathartic means of taking back the history of oppression, silencing and colonisation, and certainly many women feel that they have largely been ignored by the history books. So what Atwood simply does is tell the story from the perspective of Penelope, a character essentially idealised in the ancient myth as the dutiful wife evading the advances of her many suitors by continuously weaving and unpicking a garment. Rather than chaining Penelope to the spinning wheel, Atwood invigorates her character with sexuality, humour, emotion and as a woman highly sceptical of her husband's pursuits and attitude towards women. For those who have read Homer's `Odyssey' one must not forget that it took Odysseus many years to return home to his wife, and in that time he engaged in a year long affair with the nymph Circe. Not until `The Penelopiad' do we get open criticism of Odysseus' behaviour and his senseless slaughter of Penelope's handmaids and most importantly this criticism comes directly from Penny herself. I think Atwood's novel is a fabulous fusion of re-written history from a sexy and witty perspective that incorporates nods towards popular culture such as `Desperate Housewives' and chick lit. Okay so it probably isn't Atwood's best written work but there are definite echoes of her earliest work `The Edible Woman' and the poetic prose of the chorus made up the twelve maids reminds one that Atwood is an extremely accomplished poet (see `Eating Fire'). I find it difficult to accept that this novel has been so readily written off, while many people will quite happily part with their money to see thoughtless and turgid Hollywood interpretations of the ancient world (`Troy', `Alexander', `300') that lack wit and sophistication. However I will concede that `The Penelopiad' is feminism lite, and if one wishes to introduce themselves to ancient proto-feminism I would suggest Euripides' `Medea'.
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#1 HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWERon 5 March 2018
I thought The Penelopiad was very good. I approached it with some trepidation, but it was readable, insightful and very funny in places.

This is the myth of Odysseus's wife, narrated by her shade in Hades in the present day. As you'd expect, it has Margaret Atwood's wry, intelligent feminist take on the story. Penelope has rather an ironic, world-weary voice which does become very funny in places. I could almost imagine her doing a stand-up routine about this, and it makes the book very readable, while making some very serious points. Atwood is very good at highlighting the role and mythologizing of the perfect wife for the male fantasy it is, but this is also concerned with class. She is very concerned with the fate of the twelve serving maids who were hanged on Odysseus's return for consorting with Penelope's suitors. They were "just" low-born or slave women who didn't really count for anything and they are neatly brought to life as the Chorus who periodically comment on the story in the manner of Greek tragedy. It's a clever device which makes the points about male hypocrisy and the story's distain for ordinary lives very well.

I found the actual verse of the Chorus a bit mixed; some was very good, some less successful, but overall this is a readable and thoughtful book which I can recommend.

(My thanks to Canongate for an ARC via NetGalley.)
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