I am almost reluctant to write this review of Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus--for two main reasons. First, I love many of Atwood's novels--especially Cat's Eye which I read as a young woman. Second, many bloggers I admire very much, from Trisha and Mel to Nymeth and Caribousmom, were much more impressed with the book than I am.
Rather than being amused by Atwood's attempts at humor, I found many of her lines annoying and artificial. When the dead Penelope is narrating her story to modern audiences, for example, she says what is supposed to be hip: "In your world, you don't get visitations from the gods the way people used to unless you're on drugs." This kind of talk made Penelope seem like a trivial character to me rather than a voice from the past I wanted to spend my time listening to. I expected Atwood to use her deep insights to turn Penelope into a fuller character, not draw her into a comic strip. Similarly, the rapping maids come out with ridiculous lines like "Word has it that Penelope the Prissy was--when it came to sex--no shrinking sissy!" This kind of portrayal I find to be so surface level as to be demeaning.
Although I disliked this book fairly intensely, there were many insights and lines I was drawn to. My favorite: Odysseus "had a reputation as a man who could undo any complicated knot, though sometimes by tying a more complicated one."
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I've been thinking about my displeasure at what I see as Atwood's derision of Homer's epic. Do I dislike her novel so much because of my desire to take classic literature "seriously"? When I read the Literary Blog Hop's question of the week (about whether a book's status as a classic affects our enjoyment or perception of a book), it made think about why I had so many problems with this book. I feel called to work hard to try to understand what people have found valuable in great literature over the centuries. Can I just not take a joke when an author pokes fun of those works?
I think the answer is that I do like literary joking around. For example, I love works that turn Shakespeare on his head to make us laugh--as I have said before and will say again. I can't quite figure out what the difference is here. It feels like Atwood is dismissing The Odyssey rather than playing with it or building on it. Does that make any sense?
I would love to hear your thoughts. Anyone who loved the book want to make a spirited defense of it?