I know that school just let out, so the very last thing anyone wants to do is read and dissect another “classic”. But I really need to talk this one out, y'all.
I just finished The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. As in, Atwood-of-The Handmaid’s Tale-fame.
This book (published in 2005, by Canongate Books Ltd.) is meant to be a sort of a modern companion to the great Greek epic The Odyssey (you know, that super-long one you skimmed for freshman English).
Its narrator is none other than the ever-faithful wife herself, although a wiser and more sardonic version after spending a few millennia wallowing in the idyllic, if utterly boring, Underworld.
Spoiler Alert: This is not a book with a happy ending.
More than just a recounting of events through different eyes, this book is a strange and brutal historical and literary analysis and social commentary all wrapped together; a bewitchingly elegant, innovatively-formatted train wreck. Not a train wreck in the sense that the prose is mangled or disorderly-Atwood meticulously plants each word for maximum punch, drawing parallels to the modern world that knock the breath out of you. A train wreck in that you can’t look away- the images of carnage and futility and despair are ones that will haunt you.
Like Penelope, I’m a crier.
I happy-cry, I sad-cry, I sleepy-cry, I mad-cry.
And this book didn’t make me cry.
This book made me really THINK.
I could write you an analysis of the “low art” of story-building, a thesis about the symbolism of water, or a critique of the author’s portrayal of Helen of Troy as a grade-A witch. I could talk at length about the complicated power dynamics, the gendered stereotypes, and the double standards at play when it comes to Penelope's relationships with Odysseus, with Eurycleia, with Telemachus, her father, her mother, her maids,...pretty much everyone.
If you’re searching for a summer read that is intellectually challenging, but not overly-long or preachy (*cough* Atlas Shrugged *cough*), look no further. I’ll be wrestling with this one for a long time.
You can find me reading a nice, sappy romance while I decompress!