18 September 2010

Book Review: The Penelopiad

An amazing thing happened yesterday... Benny and I made a trip to the library. We haven't visited the library all summer. I have no excuse for this other than we were busy all summer working in the house. But that's not really an excuse.

Benny loves the library and so do I. There's a local library within walking distance. It doesn't have the best selection of books, but it does have enough to excite Benny. After I rooted around for awhile, I found some book selections for me. I checked out Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad and Jane Smiley's Good Faith. I am obsessed with Atwood.

I started reading The Penelopiad yesterday when Benny was napping. I was up for a couple of hours last night (a common theme in my life now), so I ended up finishing the book!

The Penelopiad is a version of The Odyssey, but in classic Atwood form, it is told through the eyes of Penelope, Odysseus's wife. I read The Iliad and The Odyssey way back in high school and I don't remember much about them. The closest reference I have is the movie O Brother, Where Art Though? by the glorious Coen Brothers. So, many of Atwood's references were completely lost on me.

However, the always amazing Atwood made the story very accessible for those of us who can't remember what we read last week, much less what we read in high school. The basic gist of the story: Penelope marries Odysseus and moves with him to Ithaca. She is the cousin of Helen of Troy, who is the bane of her existence. When Helen runs off to Troy with Paris, her husband asks Odysseus to help retrieve his wife. Odysseus agrees and thus begins his 20 year Odyssey. Back at home, young Penelope is left with a palace and a son. She is a smart woman, so she learns how to run a palace and farm and attracts the attention of young suitors who want to marry her for her treasures. Since there was little news of Odysseus, they pressured her relentlessly.

Penelope was able to stall her suitors by weaving a death shroud for her father-in-law and taking it apart at night. She recruited 12 maids to help her with this task. Yada yada yada, 10 more years go by and Odysseus finally returns. He kills the hundreds of suitors as well as the 12 maids. The death of the maids weighs heavily on Penelope - even in death.

Atwood tells the story as a modern narrative. Penelope is the narrator 2,000 years later as she resides in Hades. Atwood also includes "chorus" chapters, common to Greek plays, that the maids perform. Although the story is classic Greek and a little confusing with lack of background, Atwood's spin makes it amazing. I could appreciate her writing and now I want to know more about The Odyssey. One of the most amazing chapters was an "anthropological" view of the killings through the eyes of the maids. It was a classic anthropology lecture and I found it quite entertaining.

Atwood is pure genius!

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