The Penelopiad (2005) by Margaret Atwood
As this work is based on a classical myth from several thousand years ago I have not refrained from including spoilers: you’ve had generations to learn this story, so you are warned
I picked this book up at a library discard sale, lured by the by-line: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus. I love reading myths, legends, folklore, oral-to-written histories, fairytales – everything in the vein of traditional storytelling. I have a particular fondness for Greek and Roman classical myths and legends, and upon opening The Penelopiad was delighted to discover that it is one in a series of books called The Myths written by various authors, including AS Byatt, Chinua Achebe, Donna Tartt, Jeanette Winterson, among many others, who each retell a myth in a contemporary and memorable way.
Atwood certainly achieves this in The Penelopiad, although it wasn’t quite as brilliant as I’ve always wanted Penelope’s story to be. She is one among many of the great under-appreciated female characters of classical folklore and literature, and I wanted a story about her that would be as fascinating and empowering as Odysseus’ own twenty-year journey home from the Trojan war. Alas, there is not a lot to work with, and this is not at all Atwood’s fault. She has researched and read widely the various versions of Odysseus and Penelope’s story, and although she has embroidered and emboldened where possible, the essential facts are these: Penelope was stuck at home fending off greedy, horny men for twenty years, then her husband came home and killed everyone, including the maids she had raised and relied upon in her period of interminable waiting, and that’s all there is to it.
The only redeeming factor, which I had not heard of before, was that the death of the twelve maids was a symbolic act of sacrifice to the goddess Artemis, and thus their deaths were foretold and Penelope was the symbolic Artemis whom they would always have accompanied through life and abandoned at death. Or something like that, I finished this book late at night.
I certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoys myths and retellings of myths, but don’t expect Penelope to be a strong and fulfilled queen by the end of the book; you will be disappointed.