Spoilers have been written in white text which can be read by highlighting the relevant passage.
The Penelopiad is quite a strange book and I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it. Told by both Penelope – wife of Odysseus – and her twelve maids, the book can’t seem to settle on a consistent tone. Penelope’s sections are light and fluffy and told in a chatty, informal tone. The maids’ chapters, however, are told in verse, or in play form, or a variety of other interesting formats. They seemed like they belonged in an entirely different book.
For most of the novel, I couldn’t work Penelope out. She’s a thoroughly unlikeable character; she doesn’t seem to like anyone, she’s self-pitying and she’s self-important. She’s also not a very good story-teller. It seemed difficult to believe that Penelope’s bad narration was owing to Margaret Atwood’s own shortcomings as a writer, since she’s so acclaimed, but the repetition of certain events, the enormous amount she brazenly ignored the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule, the writing style akin to a self-published romance novel, and the way in which even the principal character didn’t feel all that fleshed out led me to think that perhaps she had been misjudged in her talents.
The novel didn’t even seem to have much purpose either. There was no exciting new angle on myth (or so it seemed); there was merely Penelope telling us her version of events in a strangely detached way for someone who apparently cared so much.
*SPOILERS* It wasn’t until I came to Penelope’s denial of the rumours about her (and the maids’ subsequent play that seemed to confirm that the rumours were true) that I realised that Penelope was perhaps meant to be an unreliable narrator and we were not meant to take what she says at face value. She is, after all, by her own admission a “proficient and shameless” liar. This seems to be backed up by the way that Penelope’s final appearance ends with her yelling at the maids for not forgiving Odysseus for his murdering them, which is thoroughly incompatible with the image she seemed to want to present throughout her narration. *END SPOILERS*
However, even with this extra layer of depth, the novel still left me fairly cold. As someone who knows a fair bit about classics, I could tell that Atwood had researched the book very well, but I couldn’t see much reason to her writing it beyond the ‘anthropology lecture’ given by the maids towards the end. If she had incorporated the ideas expressed within that chapter into the book as a whole, it may well have been a brilliant novel. Instead, it has left me with the feeling that I must have missed something. If I have, that might be to my discredit, but I think a writer has something of a duty to her readers and I think she has ultimately failed in whatever her goals were in this particular novel. It wasn’t funny or enjoyable or full of pathos or interesting characters or plot. It felt like a laboured attempt to get across some point or other – that the ancients were misogynistic, that stories aren’t always what they seem on the surface – but fell short in the way it was attempted.
I may return to Margaret Atwood at some point, but The Penelopiad certainly hasn’t made me enthusiastic about the prospect.