Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2006 | Reviews

Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood

By Robin Davisson

UI Associate Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology Robin Davisson, 88BS, 91MA, 94PhD, is discovering a new twist on an old classic with Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Canongate Books).

Penelopiad was one of the first books that launched Canongate's Myth Series, in which renowned contemporary authors reinterpret legendary works. In other Myth offerings, Jeanette Winterson puts her spin on the story of Atlas and Heracles, while David Grossman offers a fresh perspective on the Biblical hero Samson.

Why did you choose this book?

UI Associate Professor of Linguistics Roumyana Slabakova chose it for a book group that I belong to and hosted our group at her house. In addition to good books, our gatherings also focus on a food theme around which to build a potluck meal. For Penelopiad, we enjoyed Greek food.

What's it about?

A witty, contemporary take on the events surrounding Odysseus's return home after his 20-year epic journey, Penelopiad retells this familiar tale through the voices of Penelope, wife of Odysseus and cousin of Helen of Troy, and her 12 maids. From her corner of Hades, a weary but hilarious Penelope offers her side of the story about what occurred in Ithaca while Odysseus was away, and what led to the hanging of her 12 maids upon his return. "Now that all the others have run out of air, it's my turn to do a little story-making," she says. Margaret Atwood also gives a voice to the maids, who intermittently chime in with dramatic choruses reflecting their own angle on the tale.

What do you like most about it?

In general, I love the idea of the series, which proves that classic tales still resonate with modern audiences. In Penelopiad, I enjoyed Atwood's ability to blend a wicked sense of humor with a clear message of outrage at the injustices toward women in ancient times. Those injustices went untold the first time around in Homer's Odyssey, but Atwood provides the victims long-overdue redemption. By giving a voice to these neglected women, she turns this legendary myth upside-down.

What would you say to recommend it to others?

Although there are times when it seems like Atwood isn't sure exactly where she is going with the story and what the "lesson" should be, overall this does not detract from what is a very fun and quick read. Penelopiad is a clever, provocative, and hilarious book.