The Penelopiad - Margaret Atwood Initially, I was intrigued by the premise of this book. A modern-day retelling of Homer's The Odyssey, the book is narrated by Penelope, the loyal and steadfast wife who waited for Odysseus's return for twenty years. Atwood shifts the focus to the marginalized female "others," particularly the 12 maids who were hung at Odysseus's return.

For those whose recollections of The Odyssey are cobwebby, a bit of background: After serving in the Trojan War, Odysseus sets sail for home but is sidetracked by side adventures for ten years. Meanwhile, suitors try to win the hand of the "widowed" Penelope. When she refuses, the 100+ suitors hunker down in Odysseus's home, eat all his food, and drink his wine. Eventually, Odysseus returns disguised as a beggar and slaughters the suitors and the 12 maids who consorted with them. Telemachus then hangs the maids on the bow of a ship.

The book started out interestingly enough. Penelope is in Hades, and finally decides to break her silence. She recounts her infancy and childhood (noting her father's attempted murder), her interactions with Helen, and her married life with Odysseus. Reading through her accounts, Penelope is if not likeable, very human. She gets angry, excessively weepy, and is perpetually envious of her cousin Helen.

Up until then, the narrative was fairly constant and was an interesting take on the original poem. But when Penelope focuses on the 12 maids, the story got a bit weird.

The hanging of the maids is the central focus of Penelope's guilt and what prompts her to tell her tale. According to Penelope, she had instructed the maids to spy on the suitors by sleeping with them (instead of the maids choosing to do so of their own free will), inadvertently causing their deaths at Odysseus's hand. The maids play a large role in this book. They serve as the book's chorus, and entire chapters are dedicated to "anthropological" studies and a videotaped murder trial of Odysseus. Some interpretations (Penelope being a goddess and the maids as members of her cult) are bizarre. Others chapters (the trial of Odysseus that judges the morality of ancient practices by modern standards) are plain silly.

Overall, the book at best presents a patchwork of speculations and superficial interpretations of the myth of Penelope. I suppose if the purpose of the book was to be a fictionalized survey of different versions of Penelope's myth, it succeeded. But as a story or critical essay, it left me confused and unsatisfied. Also, the feminist slant of this book was too in-your-face for my liking.