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How I came by the book
I’m a late reader of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, picking it up some 14 years after it was written. It wasn’t exactly my choice of a first read of her work. My sister bought the book and left it hanging around.
I picked up the book and read the first few pages after dabbling with the synopsis. It turned out to be a page-turner and a hilarious and easy read. I could not put it down and believe I finished it in less than five days.
The novel/play starts in the underworld; with Penelope explaining that she was aware of Odysseus deceptiveness when she married him. She then embarks on narrating the events of her life with hilarious wit and sarcasm. She focuses in particular on her relationship with the twelve maids that Odysseus executes when he returns to Penelope. According to this retelling of the famous Greek tragedy, Penelope was well aware of everything that was going on – without saying what ‘everything’ consists of, as to not spoil it. The ending is essentially the same – only in this version, we get Penelope’s take and infectious sarcasm.
Penelope is hilarious in the retelling of the story. She is both at once like an old, bitter woman lamenting on the past and a constantly dissatisfied teenager, and her humour somehow combines that of both. She is constantly dissatisfied, unpleasant and drooling with sarcasm. But, as I said, she is bitter. And she remains that virtuous, silent and ever enduring woman, even in this version. We don’t get the satisfaction of a more empowered ending (or life) for Penelope but we do get her hilarious voiceover and the reassurance that she knew what was going on.
I also loved the character of Helen. Also loaded with wit and sarcasm, Helen is a narcissistic beauty that could’ve easily been the annoying but beautiful female cousin from an Austen novel. She boasts about the number of men her husband killed for her and constantly reminds Penelope that she (Penelope) does not have to bear the curse of beauty, while she floats through the underground with an entourage of male fans floating behind her.
Pop Culture and Themes
Ahead of her time, Atwood here touched on what remind me of the #metoo movement and general themes in feminism. She examines the relationship between women and explores how sometimes women can ruin each other’s lives (As Penelope believes Helen did) and how they can sometimes help each other (as the maids do Penelope). Through Penelope and the maid, Atwood also comments on how women often leave other women behind.
These themes are still relevant today and we are still talking about them.
Ratings and Recommendation
I do recommend this book. It is a short and fun read – with serious undertones – and has motivated me to reread the Odyssey!
I give The Penelopiad a solid 7/10.
If you want to have a read of this book, you can get it from amazon here.