Friday, October 19, 2012

Review Me Twice- The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

I'm not really sure what I was expecting out of this book.  I guess something that was more epic than the epic tale.  Something a little darker because, after all, it IS Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid's Tale is just all sorts of epic and wonderful (and you should read it if you haven't and maybe even one day we'll review it if we're so inclined, but not right now.)  However, the book just didn't do for me what I thought it would.

Now, that's not to say it wasn't well written.  Much as I expected, Miss Atwood delivered a wonderfully woven tale with the most elegantly crafted sentences and a vocabulary that titillates.  The story is paced well and those are all things that I like.

I also like that we see Penelope in the underworld.  I like that it's a post-humus thing and she is in the Elysium fields, talking to us about this tragic event in her life and everything that went along with it.  And, for a character, Penelope is pretty well fleshed out.  We can see her obvious jealousies (she practically turns green when she sees Helen of Troy) and we can see that she's telling this story to deflect doubt off of her.  She's trying to get us to believe that it's not her fault.

That's where my favorite part comes in.  We have the "Chorus" which is the 12 maids who, essentially, talk in unison.  But they tell us all the dirty little secrets that Penelope isn't telling us.  But is she not telling us, or are the maids just gossips?  Because, after all, she's cultivated them to be so.  But so much doesn't add up about Penelope's story.  She's constantly trying to make herself look like the good guy, and innocent and how she's SO sorry for what happened (this is about the time my YA literature professor would interject the term unreliable narrator.)  I really like that Atwood used the Maids to cast so much doubt on Penelope, this character who, through all of history has always been viewed as the faithful, reliable wife.

But the book didn't really click with me much past that and I think a big reason was because I just didn't find Penelope all that interesting.  She was kind of insipid and whiny and "God, Helen always gets all the attention and why can't anyone ever see just how terrible she is?"  It really got on my nerves and I feel like, when the person is narrating, that's the last thing that you want to have happen.

Bottom line: 3 out of 5.
What an interesting book. It's not like anything I've read before, except... it is. The format is similar to that of The Odyssey, complete with chorus sections interspersed (mostly done by the maids), which is a nice touch on Margaret Atwood's part. It's a rewrite of a myth I've heard several times before. And I've read things narrated by a protagonist I know to be speaking from the afterlife. But all of these things combined made for a new-ish reading experience that I really enjoyed.

The story is somehow compelling, even though Penelope basically tells you the whole thing right at the beginning, by recapping the myth we all know (or could learn quickly by reading the introduction). Even though I knew what would happen next, I kept finding myself propelled through the pages to find out... what would happen next.

Several of my English classes in undergrad discussed "unreliable narrators." We studied these characters in stories where, at the end, it turns out the narrator was hallucinating, or dreaming, or suffered from mental illness, or was trying to convince or persuade or lie the whole time. I get one of these feelings from Penelope, and I like it. I really like unreliable narrators. They keep things interesting. And in the end, it doesn't really matter if they're right or not, because they've told a story. (It's up to you, the audience, to decide how seriously you'll take their story.)

I would have very much enjoyed reading this when I read the original myth, because it offers such an interesting alternative perspective on the stories we all accept as the myth of Odysseus and everyone around him.

The only people I wouldn't recommend this to are those who really genuinely dislike the Odysseus stories (because that would taint the whole book for those readers). Otherwise, give it a shot.

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