Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood is a part of the Cannongate Myth Series, of which I'd previously read Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles by Jeanette Winterson in which contemporary writers reinvent ancient myths. Atwood draws from Homer's The Odyssey, in which Odysseus' wife, Penelope, the daughter of King Icarus, is the quintessential faithful wife. Not so in The Penelopiad, which alternates between the perspective of Penelope and her twelve hanged maids, telling their story from the Underworld in modern times. 

Okay, so the first thing to know about this review is that I don't like Margaret Atwood. As a Canadian, I feel almost treasonous saying such a thing, but it's true. However I loved the concept of the Myth Series so much, and completely loved Weight, and the basic premise of the book sounded interesting, plus the book is insanely short in comparison to most works by Atwood, that I decided to give it a try anyway. Bad idea.

The retelling in The Penelopiad does not work well at all. Penelope has a knowledge of current events and what has gone on since her death, but these pop culture references do not add anything at all to the actual storyline, neither does any of the discussion regarding the lives Odysseus or Penelope's cousin Helen of Troy have lived since their original incarnations, so I never really understood the purpose of telling the story this way. Also, as interesting as I found the feminist imagining, most of the book came across as unfortunately whiny and the portions told from the perspective of the maids were awkwardly inserted and told in a variety of formats like a contemporary courtroom scene which seemed random and also didn't add anything to the story as a whole. Oftentimes it seemed more like Atwood was attempting to be clever than focusing on doing a good job telling the story.

I listened to The Penelopiad on audiobook, read by Laural Merlington, who did an ordinary though occasionally overly dramatic job as Penelope which worked alright for me as a reader. Unfortunately, listening to the book made the scenes featuring the chorus of maids singing together even more annoying than they would have been in print. 

The Penelopiad contains Atwood's signature verbose writing style, which flows smoothly in the portions where Penelope is speaking and occasionally contains some really beautiful phrases. The poetic prose was a reeming factor of the novel for me but there were simply too many flaws in what the writing was actually saying for me to enjoy it most of the time. The conflicting stories of Penelope and her maids were also interesting as it made the reader think about the concept of history in general; how different history may be depending on who you are hearing it from. Overall, The Penelopiad was not for me as a reader, but it offers a different take on a traditional myth that would likely be appreciated by those who usually enjoy Atwood's writing or who are particularly interested in mythology.

Read By: Laura Merlington 
Release Date: October 5th, 2005
Pages: 192 (3h 21m)
: 1.5/5

Source: Audio book
Buy the Book


  1. Interesting. See, as a Canadian, I also feel very odd hating Margaret Atwood - but for me, it's not her works I hate, In fact, even though they tend towards the depressing, I generally liked The Handmaid's Tale, The Edible Woman and others. But I cannot stand her politics - the droll way she carries about, her presumed intellectual surperiority - bleh. She`s just always struck me as someone too involved with herself. Now, I read most of these in high school (like any good Canadian Feminist ...) and I read The Pelepionad in my first year of undergrad. And, like the others, I found it depressing and yet I liked it. It was only when I saw an interview with her about it that my feminist anger boiled over and I wanted to rip the book in half.
    Something about those twelve hanging maids, you know?
    Anyways, thanks for the review1 Glad to know there's another Canadian out there who is not a fan! :)

  2. @Ammy- I completely agree. I try to separate the writer from the writing but as a person she also really gets on my nerves. I have read two of her novels, Alias Grace and Cat's Eye and they were both more enjoyable than this though still not my favourites. She has some beautiful passages but I tend to find they get bogged down. Oh well, I guess I am also a bad Canadian!


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