Those of you who said The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood was a fast read weren’t kidding. I began reading it Monday on my lunch break. Read it Tuesday at lunch and then finished it last night. I stayed up a little past my bedtime to do it, but when I’m ten pages away from finishing a book it’s hard to go to bed.
The book tells the story of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, from Penelope’s point of view. From her childhood rescue by ducks from drowning after her father threw her in to the water to try and circumvent a prophecy, to her arranged marriage with Odysseus (he cheated at a foot race against the other suitors), to her move to Ithaca, the Trojan war, and all that followed. The story is told in typical Atwood fashion with lots of wry humor. As an example of the humor are the reports of Odysseus Penelope receives from different quarters, there is the mythologized version and the other version:
Odysseus had been to the Land of the Dead to consult the spirits, said some. No, he’d merely spent the night in a gloomy old cave full of bats, said others. He’d made his men put wax in their ears, said one, while sailing past the alluring sirens–half-bird, half-woman–who enticed men to their island and then ate them, though he’d tied himself to the mast so he could listen to their irresistible singing without jumping overboard. No, said another, it was a high-class Sicilian knocking shop–the courtesans there were known for their musical talents and their fancy feathered outfits.
Interrupting Penelope’s story from time to time is a chorus interlude of the twelve maids that Odysseus had his son Telemachus hang for cavorting with the enemy. Their point of view doesn’t always agree with Penelope’s so they create a nice tension. And of course, they were hanged unfairly and call upon the Furies to exact punishment on Odysseus and to follow him “wherever he may take refuge, in songs and in plays, in tomes and in theses, in marginal notes and in appendices!” Atwood also uses the maids to poke gentle fun at the type of feminist analysis that turns female experience into goddess worship being destroyed by the patriarchy.
As you can tell, I very much enjoyed the book. This is no deep, literary Atwood book. This is Atwood having fun. But even having fun she still manages to say a few important things. It’s a quick and easy read, would be great for the beach if you want something light but not too light.