What Penelope was up to when Odysseus was out

Penelope may be literature's ultimate stay-at-home mom. While her husband, Odysseus, filled two books with 20 years of war, adventures, and gorgeous goddesses, Penelope was stuck on Ithaca weaving, raising a son, and trying to keep about 100 suitors from eating her out of house and home. Her cousin Helen has been synonymous with beauty for 2,500 years; Penelope got faithfulness. It's the kind of thing that might make a gal bitter. Booker Prize-winner Margaret Atwood rescues Penelope from thousands of years of ho-hum-dom in her slim new novel, "The Penelopiad," part of Canongate's innovative new reinventions of the classics.

Writing from the underworld, where she has grown bored with the fields of asphodel ("I would have preferred a few hyacinths"), Penelope makes a smart, pungent, but perhaps not entirely reliable narrator. (Could anyone really have slept through the slaughter of 100 or so men and 12 women?) Atwood ("The Handmaid's Tale") is most concerned about those 12 women - Penelope's maids - whom Odysseus had hanged upon his return. Why they were killed remains the pivotal question of the novel. Here they serve as a Greek chorus line, whose feet never quite touch the ground. One of their poems suggests that faithful Penelope wasn't sleeping by herself all those years, and that the maids had to be silenced or Odysseus would have killed her, too. One of Atwood's most interesting theories posits that Penelope had set up a matriarchal society, ruled by herself and 12 priestesses, which Odysseus overthrew. Sadly, Atwood relegates this to merely a tantalizing idea.

Odysseus is still clever and charming, but "heroic" no longer applies to Homer's character. Bullying and hypocritical, maybe; slippery works well, also. The rumors that reach Penelope have a decidedly un-Homeric cast to them: "Odysseus had been in a fight with a giant, one-eyed Cyclops, said some; no, it was only a one-eyed tavern keeper ... and the fight was over nonpayment of the bill."

Helen resembles the popular cheerleader in high school - vain and catty. Even dead, she still has admirers and is frequently on call to serve at séances. "If you were a magician, messing around in the dark arts and risking your soul, would you want to conjure up a plain but smart wife who'd been good at weaving and had never transgressed, instead of a woman who'd driven hundreds of men mad with lust and had caused a great city to go up in flames? Neither would I." Atwood's brilliance is that she would. Grade: B+

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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