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7. Margaret Atwood (2005), The Penelopiad

I read this book because a) it is about me my mythological namesake, b) my Mum bought it for me two Christmases ago, knowing that it would appeal to me for that reason, and c) I've always vaguely thought I ought to read something by Margaret Atwood.

It's basically Penelope's side of the story, as the title suggests. She is the narrator, speaking from the Underworld, and she tells us how she felt, what she knew when and why she did what she did from her childhood up to the return of Odysseus. There's a special emphasis on the twelve household maids which Telemachus hangs on Odysseus's orders at the end of Book 22 of the Iliad. In Homer, they've been rude and insolent to Eurycleia (Odysseus' childhood nurse) and Penelope, and have slept with several of the suitors. In The Penelopiad, they were Penelope's secret eyes and ears about the house, and most of them had been raped. So Atwood sets out to tell their side of the story, too - and in particular breaks up Penelope's narrative with a series of Greek-style dramatic Choruses, delivered by the maids in formats ranging from the ballad and the sea shanty to the idyll and the court-room trial.

Thing is, that's about it. That's the plot and structure of the book, it's all done perfectly plausibly and readably, and I really don't have anything much else to say about it. There wasn't really anything in it which surprised me, wowed me or challenged me. Well, there was one of the Maids' Choruses, done in the style of an anthropology lecture, where I had to grit my teeth a bit as I was presented with a reading of Odysseus' return as the over-throw of a matriarchal society led by Penelope - an interpretation which Atwood credits in her closing note to Robert Graves' famously *koff* 'creative' The Greek Myths. But apart from that, it was fine. Just fine. Did exactly what it said on the tin.

I suppose I was hoping for something a bit more epic and creative. Maybe the problem is that Penelope - much as I would wish otherwise - is not really the most exciting of characters. Atwood chooses to keep her basically in line with Homer's characterisation, apart from having hidden feelings and motives which Homer and his male characters overlook. So alternate possibilities like her becoming the mother of Pan are out of the window, and you're left with a pretty passive heroine, really - even if you do grant her intelligence that Homer doesn't.

Oh well - anyway, I've read it now. Whether I'll read more Atwood is likely to depend on whether anyone particularly persuasive attempts to talk me into it or not.

Comments

( 38 comments — Leave a comment )
the_lady_lily
Jun. 12th, 2007 09:03 pm (UTC)
Whether I'll read more Atwood is likely to depend on whether anyone particularly persuasive attempts to talk me into it or not.

Oh, heavens. Of all the Atwood I've read, The Penelopiad is undoubtedly the weakest. Go and find yourself a copy of The Handmaid's Tale, pronto. Or else I might cry.
gylfinir
Jun. 12th, 2007 09:19 pm (UTC)
I was about to recommend The Handmaid's Tale myself; I think that's my favourite Atwood.
(no subject) - strange_complex - Jun. 12th, 2007 09:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - the_lady_lily - Jun. 12th, 2007 09:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Jun. 12th, 2007 09:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - libellum - Jun. 13th, 2007 08:24 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Jun. 13th, 2007 09:24 am (UTC) - Expand
huskyteer
Jun. 12th, 2007 09:16 pm (UTC)
That sounds great - I also keep meaning to read some Atwood.

I discovered today to my great delight that gerbils were named after a character in the Iliad.
strange_complex
Jun. 12th, 2007 09:29 pm (UTC)
Well, except that it wasn't great - it was just fine. I mean, I wouldn't actively counsel against reading it - but I could hardly recommend it in glowing terms! I'd listen to the two ladies above if I were you, who sound like they know their Atwood better than me.

I was a bit confused about your gerbils for a minute there, as I didn't remember any character called Pinchippus... but I see what you mean now I've followed the link!
(no subject) - huskyteer - Jun. 13th, 2007 12:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
gillywoo
Jun. 12th, 2007 09:40 pm (UTC)
I'd be quite interested in reading that actually. Margaret Atwood is very much hit or miss, she's written some great books (The Robber Bride, the handmaids tale and cats eye) and some shite - "Surfacing". I don't rate her as much as I do Tanith Lee or Weldon. But I really would recommend "the handmaids tale" as a good book.
strange_complex
Jun. 12th, 2007 09:44 pm (UTC)
Well, that's three for The Handmaid's Tale now, so it must have something going for it.

You're very welcome to borrow The Penelopiad - I'll put it together with the book and DVD I borrowed from you, and try to remember to give them all to you some time!
(no subject) - gillywoo - Jun. 12th, 2007 10:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - libellum - Jun. 13th, 2007 08:32 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gillywoo - Jun. 13th, 2007 08:56 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Jun. 13th, 2007 09:17 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gillywoo - Jun. 13th, 2007 12:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Jun. 13th, 2007 12:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gillywoo - Jun. 13th, 2007 02:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Jun. 13th, 2007 03:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gillywoo - Jun. 13th, 2007 03:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kissmeforlonger - Jun. 13th, 2007 02:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gillywoo - Jun. 13th, 2007 02:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
newwaytowrite
Jun. 12th, 2007 10:22 pm (UTC)
yes


and if you are into a round of themed works whilst reading it I recommend
in this order

The Communist Manifesto
Herland
The Dispossessed
Woman on the Edge of Time
The Wanderground
The Handmaid's Tale
gillywoo
Jun. 13th, 2007 08:51 am (UTC)
Re: yes
Seconded "Woman on the edge of time" - it's one of the best books ever. I also love "body of Glass", which is truly amazing. In fact. I <3 Marge Piercy and everything of hers I've read!
white_hart
Jun. 13th, 2007 07:33 am (UTC)
My seminar tutor for Epic Tradition in my first year at Warwick (don't know if he was still at Warwick in your time; he is utterly ungoogleable due to having the same name as one of the actors who played Doctor Who!) was also very keen on that interpretation of the Odyssey. (His other pet theory was that the Catalogue of Ships in Book 2 of the Iliad was in fact an ancient Greek version of the shipping forecast, which didn't really make it any less dull).

I haven't read The Penelopiad yet (I seem to have got a long way behind with Atwood over the last few years), but would definitely second (or third, fourth or fifth) the recommendation of The Handmaid's Tale.
strange_complex
Jun. 13th, 2007 09:21 am (UTC)
You mean the 'overthrow of a matriarchal society' theory? In all seriousness? I like the Greek shipping forecast one, though.

Meanwhile, it looks like I am being lent The Handmaid's Tale, so maybe my opinion of Atwood will be rescued from this blow after all.
(no subject) - white_hart - Jun. 13th, 2007 09:30 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Jun. 13th, 2007 10:18 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Jun. 13th, 2007 10:20 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - white_hart - Jun. 13th, 2007 10:40 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Jun. 13th, 2007 11:00 am (UTC) - Expand
angeoverhere
Jun. 13th, 2007 08:47 am (UTC)
I know exactly what you mean about this book. The idea was very promising, but the delivery was thin, and it all felt a bit knocked together in a hurry, so I found it quite disapointing.

You really *must* read The Handmaid's Tale though.
strange_complex
Jun. 13th, 2007 09:22 am (UTC)
Yep, that's exactly how it seemed. I suppose it's not that surprising, given that it was a commissioned book for an existing series, rather than something that came out of her spontaneously.

And don't worry - someone's lending me The Handmaid's Tale!
(no subject) - angeoverhere - Jun. 13th, 2007 11:40 am (UTC) - Expand
velvet512
Jun. 13th, 2007 06:05 pm (UTC)
modern versions of ancient myths

I've forgotten all the details, but I seem to recall this is one book in a series put out by a publisher whose name eludes me for the time being.

The first volume in the series was by Karen Armstrong. Not one of her best. She seemed to depend on scholarly commentaries rather than personal insight - and you can't really know anything true about myths until you have experienced them.

The second volume in the series is by Jeanette Winterson. It's brilliant. Do get hold of it if you pssibly can.

I too found the Attwood rather less than completely captivating. But maybe that was something to do with reading it after I'd so much enjoyed the Winterson.
strange_complex
Jun. 13th, 2007 06:20 pm (UTC)
Re: modern versions of ancient myths
Yes, I just checked on the book - it's Canongate. They have pictures of the covers of the other two books in the series on the inside back cover of the Atwood one.

It's good to hear the Winterson one is a success. As I commented above to someone else, I think part of the problem with the Atwood one may be the very fact that it was commissioned, rather than being her own passionate idea. But it's good to know that another author flourished in the same circumstances.
sturmed
Jun. 14th, 2007 09:20 am (UTC)
ive never had the urge to read her, and im not sure after your review that i shall.
( 38 comments — Leave a comment )

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