Publication Date: October 5, 2005
Penelope is left at home while Odysseus is away fighting the Trojan War and trying to make his way home. Alone with a baby, she has to fend for herself as suitors start coming and asking for her hand in marriage.
In this re-telling, Atwood explores the untold side of the classic epic poem and uses the voices of the women we don’t hear from. After all, someone needs to set the record straight and tell the real story.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date Read: December 4, 2018
I promise, I’m almost done with the books I’ve read for Young Adult Literature. We read nine books over the whole semester, so I have a lot of them to review.
After The Odyssey, I was really hoping to like this re-telling of Penelope’s story. We had a lot of discussions in class about whether or not she would be more empowered in this version and if she would get the credit she deserved. I went into the book looking forward to reading this story from a feminist POV because that’s what I expected from a Margaret Atwood book.
Unfortunately, that’s not what I felt I got. It was actually really hard to get through this book because it was really dry and repetitive. I can’t say that I really remember much of what she spent her time talking about, but I do know that for a book that was 199 pages long, it felt a lot longer. The version of Penelope that I got in this book wasn’t very much more animated than the version that Homer wrote. In fact, I might even be willing to say that Homer’s version was more entertaining, because at least that version was somewhat punny.
We flash between Penelope telling us the story and several scenes being acted out/performed by the maids that appeared at the end of The Odyssey. It’s interesting to see how this plays out as the book progresses because we see the characters start to interact with each other. I wish that it made the story more engaging to have them interact and to see what was really going on from the perspective of women who were disregarded and left behind the scenes, but I didn’t feel like hearing from them really added anything to what we already know of the original epic poem.
Like I said, this is really dry. Penelope’s voice as a narrator is dry and hard to engage with. I wanted to like her and I wanted to believe that she was going to be a more empowering character, but she fell so flat. In fact, I remember one of my classmates saying that she might have grown to dislike Penelope more because of how she was portrayed in this book and how her character acted here.
While I understand that this isn’t supposed to stray that far from the original story and that it’s supposed to call out Homer’s writing choices by using some of the most diminished voices in the original, this felt like it was agreeing with how weak Homer made these women. Actually, Homer might have made them stronger when he told the story.
It’s frustrating to say all of this because I wanted so much more. I wanted Penelope to tell us how she managed for 20 years without her husband and how she was keeping all these suitors at bay with her wise plans and her genius. I wanted to hear her talk about how she took over the household and ran it until Telemachus was old enough to make some of the decisions on his own. Instead, I got a woman who cried a lot and admitted that she didn’t really know why she was crying or what she was crying about. A woman who was smart but rarely ever used that to her advantage. One who spent a lot of time telling the reader that she was always seen as lesser in comparison to other women, but never did a thing about it.
Let’s also talk about how the pacing was just so slow. Penelope wasn’t interesting enough to make me feel like the book was moving at a good pace. I felt like it was just dragging out and adding a few things here and there to make itself more interesting. It moved strangely in the sense of time and where it was in the 20 years that she spent alone. And when we finally got to the good parts, we spent very little time actually talking about some of Penelope’s biggest absences from the original story. She just glosses over it in a couple of pages and moves us right into the ending.
I found it hard to believe that Odysseus and Penelope actually loved each other in any manner, according to this book. He didn’t act like he loved anyone but himself (which can also be said of the original Odysseus), and she didn’t act like she really cared enough about whether he was present or gone. There was nothing about their romance that appeared to be a romance at all. At best, they were friends who had a child together. And for someone who spent 20 years waiting and crying for her husband, Penelope barely batted an eye when he returned. She might as well have shrugged her shoulders and gone to bed early.
The end was just disappointing. That’s the overall feeling I had with this book when I was done. I was disappointed in what I had read and in the story that Atwood chose to tell. We spent a good chunk of our last class period for this book discussing the problems we had with it and if the story actually served its purpose in giving a voice to those who were often silenced in a male hero’s story. While I’m very much still trying to figure that out for myself, I don’t think that this really does justice to the potential that Penelope’s character has, nor do I think that this is a version of her that I would really want or like to remember.
Penelope was really annoying throughout the book. It felt like she spent her time mostly feeling sorry for herself and trying a little, but not enough that she was actually getting anywhere. There were moments when I thought that she would stand up for herself or do something more, but she just fell into the shadows. And when her relationship with the maids was explained in more detail, I really found that I lost whatever respect I’d had for her.
Odysseus was barely present, but he was still the same level of annoying.
3 stars. I didn’t enjoy this and I’m not really sure that this re-telling told us stuff that added to the original. It felt like a weak attempt at explaining a character, and I think it could have been done better.