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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Penelopiad

Margaret Atwood

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Penelopiad

Title: The Penelopiad
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 201 pages
Availability: The Penelopiad - US
The Penelopiad - UK
The Penelopiad - Canada
L'odyssée de Pénélope - France
Die Penelopiade - Deutschland
  • The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus
  • A volume in Canongate's The Myths-series

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Our Assessment:

B : amusing, but uncertain in purpose

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 1/11/2005 Christopher Tayler
Entertainment Weekly A 28/10/2005 Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
Independent on Sunday . 27/11/2005 Catherine Taylor
New Statesman . 31/10/2005 Simon Goldhill
The NY Times Book Rev. D 11/12/2005 Caroline Alexander
London Rev. of Books . 17/11/2005 Thomas Jones
The Observer . 23/10/2005 Peter Conrad
The Spectator . 22/10/2005 Sam Leith
Sunday Telegraph A 30/10/2005 David Flusfeder
Sunday Times . 23/10/2005 Lucy Hughes-Hallett
TLS . 18/11/2005 Carolyne Larrington
The Washington Post . 25/12/2005 Elizabeth Hand

  Review Consensus:

  Most find it appealing

  From the Reviews:
  • "Atwood's book is an enjoyable, intelligent variation on Penelope's story" - Christopher Tayler, Daily Telegraph

  • "She channels Penelope by way of Absolutely Fabulous; one can imagine her chain-smoking and swilling wine between cracks about the weakness of men and the misery they visit upon women." - Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Atwood introduces a new and significant angle to Penelope's narrative -- the insistent chorus of her 12 maids. (...) The distressing image of their execution (...) recurs throughout Atwood's account, as in turn she utilises poetry, burlesque, mock trial and, less successfully, dour sociological tract." - Catherine Taylor, Independent on Sunday

  • "The Penelopiad is written very precisely in response not to the myth of Odysseus, but to the Odyssey." - Thomas Jones, London Review of Books

  • "Atwood is also self-consciously exploring the role of ancient paradigms in modern life: comedy, too, gives us stories to live by. The book ends with a surprisingly poignant image (.....) Atwood carefully allows a glimpse of the real bravery it takes to escape from the unhappy sureties of bedroom and house." - Simon Goldhill, New Statesman

  • "Atwood's Penelope, in her studied offhand narration of her own story, is wholly unconvincing. (.....) This marvelous material seems to have been metabolized by Atwood's imagination, and the result is merely a riff on a better story that comes dangerously close to being a spoof." - Caroline Alexander, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Despite Atwood's grievance, the pleasure of her text lies in its witty desecration of Homer's epic. It reminds me of Offenbach's mythological opera buffas" - Peter Conrad, The Observer

  • "Spry’ is a word that could almost have been invented to describe Margaret Atwood, who beadily and wittily retells the events surrounding the Odyssey through the voice of Penelope. Pragmatic, clever, domestic, mournful, Penelope is a perfect Atwood heroine. (...) What gives her narrative its moral problem and its emotional centre of gravity are the choric songs, lightly burlesqued, that intersperse it." - Sam Leith, The Spectator

  • "Unhurried, unshowy, she gives us the huge pleasures of rhythm and structure and story, and characters too (.....) But we can't consider them as pure symbol -- the work won't let us. It's too sly, too expert, too generously knowing." - David Flusfeder, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is formally daring. (...) Despite the jokiness,, anachronism and rumbustiousness, Margaret Atwood's Penelope is coherently and persuasively imagined; a heroine transplanted from contemporary Toronto to the Elysian Fields." - Carolyne Larrington, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Atwood doesn't exactly give her a makeover, but she gives her a voice, at once plaintive and wise" - Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Penelopiad is set in contemporary Hades, Penelope recounting her life (and a bit of her afterlife) from "down here". The cousin of Helen of Troy, and the wife of Odysseus, her life wasn't quite as spectacularly action-packed as theirs but she was kept pretty busy too when she had to wait for her husband all those years, warding off suitors and managing her husband's lands. And being Odysseus' wife was also something of a chore.
       Penelope describes her life: childhood (with not exactly the best father-daughter relationship), getting married off to Odysseus, the long wait, and then his return (and violent reasserting of his primacy). Helen was the glamorous and ambitious one, and though Penelope seems jealous of her beauty, it's Helen's ambition that really annoys her. The much plainer Penelope more readily accepted her fate, resigned to playing her assigned role and doing what was required -- though she too took some initiative, as in warding off the suitors during Odysseus' long absence.
       The suitors turn out to be a big problem. First of all, there are so many of them:

They were like vultures when they spot a dead cow: one drops, then another, until finally every vulture for miles is tearing up the carcass.
       Of course, what they're after is less the already-going-over-the-hill queen, but rather the riches and kingdom that would go with winning her hand. Unfortunately, they are also guests and must be treated as such, for which quite a few of Penelope's maids suffer as they are called upon to do their duties (and in this way help their mistress) and are variously raped and seduced.
       Besides the mass-slaughter of the suitors by Odysseus when he returned, a dozen of the maids were strung up, and their sad fate weighs heavily on Penelope. It's also central to the narrative, and aside from Penelope's own straightforward account of events a chorus (or rather: chorus line) of the maids pops up occasionally, breaking into song or staging a court scene to add a different perspective and take.
       Atwood does a nice job of giving Penelope's side of the story: resigned but strong-willed, sounding a bit world- (and afterworld-) weary, she offers a good and often amusing spin on the familiar stories. The story-telling is brisk and witty, with some very fine turns of phrase.
       Less successful is her attempt to make the hanging of the twelve maids a central issue. Atwood actually goes at this from several angles, but none is entirely satisfactory -- perhaps least so the 'Anthropology Lecture' the maids offer up near the end (where it is suggested that the "rape and subsequent hanging represent the overthrow of a matrilineal moon-cult", etc.). It is not becaue the ideas and explanations on offer are implausible, but rather the presentation is inadequate: neither Penelope's grief nor the various attempts at interpretation are presented anywhere near fully enough.
       The Penelopiad is a clever enough take on this aspect of the Odysseus-myth (focussed on his absence and his return), but not entirely satisfying. Well-observed, it often reads more like a collection of good one-liners: the basis for a book, but not the finished product. Atwood appears uncertain as to what exactly she wants the point of the book to be, but she is also unwilling to give in fully to the story-telling impulse: it is a good yarn, but the feeling that the author wanted to impart a lesson as well nearly overwhelms it (especially since that lesson never adequately materialises).
       A fun, quick read, but not entirely successful.

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The Penelopiad: Reviews: Margaret Atwood: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Canadian author Margaret Atwood was born in 1939.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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