“I knew he was tricky and a liar, I just didn’t think he would play his tricks and try out his lies on me.”
In The Odyssey Penelope is both the wife of the titular character Odysseus and cousin to Helen of Troy. While she’s the driving force for Odysseus to return home to Ithaca not much is known about her own story. The Penelopiad by Margret Atwood takes this woman’s tale, spinning it with a modern take, and answers the haunting question of what lead to the hanging of 12 maids in Penelope’s care when Odysseus does return home.
*Review may contain spoilers*
I love Greek myths and could drown myself in the tales for days on end if I had enough books on the subject. But, alas, I don’t and so I find myself hunting down these stories, old and new, to keep my obsession in check.
Now, I was a bit hesitant about reading The Penelopiad. Not because it’s about Penelope, but because I always seem to find myself with a hit or miss when it comes to Margret Atwood’s writing. Beside The Handmaid’s Tale, I haven’t particularly enjoyed any of her other stories and hopeful this would change that.
Though I know the basics of The Odyssey I could not for the life of me remember the 12 maids who are hanged after Odysseus returns home and all the suitors are murdered. I had to pick up my own copy to make sure I wasn’t being messed with. But, sure enough, there it was. A couple of lines, claiming they were to be killed for disrespecting Odysseus, and that’s all.
The explanation of how time has passed at Hades and how the world’s evolved, which Penelope and everyone else knows about, was extremely well done. It allowed for a modern twist and allowed Penelope time to understand her story and how to tell it. I also loved how main characters were brought up every now and then within Hades, having conversations with Penelope in order to further her thought process of past events. And though the second life stuff wasn’t exactly my favorite it made sense to show each character’s ability to handle their actions in the former lives.
Honestly, I’m just a sucker for Hades.
And, it was good Atwood changed up Hades the way she did since that was the only major change in the entire story, which relied heavily on the original subject matter.
See, when these ‘her side’ stories come about they either succeed or just rehash what we know about said character. Unfortunately, for The Penelopiad, the latter occurred, as if Atwood just cut Penelope out from The Odyssey and pasted her in this book, wiped her hands, and said done.
There was nothing new to Penelope. She’s still the same loyal, loving woman who cleverly keeps her suitors at bay until Odysseus comes home. Yes, there’s more distinction of her dislike of Helen (making her every cliché of ‘I’m not pretty enough so I have to rely on my wit’ archetype) and her understanding of Odysseus’ true nature (which I felt she knew in the original anyway), but the only different thing she does is the whole ‘secret spying pact’ with the maids. Which, genuinely, wasn’t all that clever, causing their fate to be lackluster.
And though the maids give insight into their lives throughout the story, which, compared to Penelope, was awful, but since this is Penelope’s story the maids try to prove her responsibility in their deaths, but never succeed because the story is about Penelope after all, and she really didn’t mean to get them killed.
I was also irritated that it took almost 100 pages for this novella to finally pass the Bechdel test, which only occurred when Helen starts talking about modern fashion.
And for a book claiming to be about Penelope it clearly gave the men credit as its predecessor has for centuries.
I wished the story had been about what happened after the events of The Odyssey, showing how powerful and disturbing those 12 deaths were to Penelope and Odysseus’ relationship. Granted, the insight we are given, at the end, is beautifully written and perhaps the best part of the book, but there was just so little it didn’t fully satisfy.
While I do have many issues I found myself generally enjoying it, especially by giving the 12 maids acknowledgment, and luckily, it pulled me out of my funk with Atwood, which, hopefully, will continue with her other works.