Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood

(hb; 2005)

From the inside flap:

"In Homer's account in The Odyssey, Penelope -- wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy -- is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and -- curiously -- twelve of her maids.

"In a... contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give her telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: 'What was Penelope really up to?'..."


Sly puncturing of a "timeless" myth, this. Penelope, in the words of a smart, average-attractive wife and mother, tells her side of the Odyssey-based story, where Helen of Troy, Penelope's cousin, may be outwardly beautiful but is ultimately vapid and cruel; where Odysseus, suave and brave, is considerably less noble than he's shown to be in the myth; and Penelope's refactory son, Telemachus, is all-too-ready to destroy his mother's careful management of what could've been an instant tragedy.

Leapfrogging through Penelope's recounting is the collective outrage of Penelope's twelve hanged maids, who, though loyal to Penelope, were executed because of deception and jealousy. The maids' outrage, taking various literary forms -- poetry, a case study, moments from a court room case -- provides a seering counterpoint to Penelope's seemingly-honest account.

Wow-worthy read, this, shot through with ego-diminishing digs (many of them distinctly feminine), incisive revenge, and all the other attendant emotions that culminate in a tragedy: these thirteen women are/were no shrinking vulvae, but intelligent women who were dealt the wrong cards, and suffered ignoble wounds (of varying degrees) because of them.

Check it out.

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