Books that focus on a minor character from another work can be hit or miss for me. Sometimes they’re really good, sometimes they fail miserably (see: Ahab’s Wife, which was the worst book I read this year). I like the idea in theory, so I keep seeking them out, but I’m generally disappointed by them. The Penelopiad, though, is mostly successful, as a feminist retelling of The Odyssey.
The main character is Penelope, as in the wife of Odysseus. According to legend, she waited for her husband for twenty years, fending off suitors by telling them that once she’d finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, she’d marry one of them. However, at night, she’d undo all the progress she’d made during the day, and thus the shroud was never finished and she was able to hold out until Odysseus returned home.
We follow Penelope from childhood through the events of The Odyssey, meeting great figures of Greek mythology (Helen of Troy, for example) and experiencing the stories we all know well from her perspective. She was a great character to choose, because there’s just enough structure to the stories that we know about her that Atwood can’t get too carried away. We’re told the story from ghost-Penelope, after her death, looking back on her past; as a result, Penelope has a very modern, snarky voice, which was both hilarious and slightly jarring. I liked it, though–Atwood really transforms the genre into something unique by doing this, and it didn’t feel forced. We also get a running commentary in verse by Penelope’s twelve (also dead) maids, who interject sporadically to recount their version of events.
This book is really funny, which I wasn’t expecting. Penelope makes fun of everyone, including Odysseus, and provides a fresh new take on characters like Helen (a slutty, bitchy bimbo if Penelope is to be believed). I’ve read a lot of Greek myths, and so it was cool to see them reinterpreted in this way.
My biggest problem with the book is that it’s so short–it’s more like a novella–that we never spend much time on any one event or theme. So it ends up feeling a bit bare-bones. It’s good, and I enjoyed it, but there’s not much substance to it. I almost wish it had been a bit grittier and more dramatic and typically novel-like–Penelope is such a cool character, and I’d love to read a book that really delved into her story a bit more than this one does. Atwood clearly had fun writing this, though, and her enthusiasm is infectious. A fun read, but one that doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression.