One of the first novels in a new series, The Myths, this is the story of Odysseus's wife Penelope, who waited twenty years for her husband to sail to Troy, besiege it, conquer it and finally make his way home via Cyclops, Calypso, Circe, Scylla and Charybis. Penelope, Homer tells us, waited faithfully; tricked her hundred suitors into waiting, too, for her to choose one of them; and, when Odysseus came home at last, was deceived by his disguise, and stood by as he and their son Telemachus hanged twelve of her maids for the crime of sleeping with the enemy.
Atwood gives the story a different slant. She reminds us that Penelope is cousin to Helen of Troy, and paints her as the clever, plain one. (This resonates with the reference to 'cousin Penelope with her long nose' in La Belle Helene, reviewed here recently.) She's constantly at odds with her mother-in-law, slowly learning to govern Ithaca in her husband's absence, and -- the daughter of a Naiad, thus prone to wateriness -- she weeps constantly for lost Odysseus.
Then the suitors arrive, and Penelope enlists the help of her maids. What she regrets is her own cunning, her own secrecy: her own reluctance to share the details of her scheming with Eurycleia, the old woman who recognises Odysseus before Penelope herself does.
Or so Penelope lets everyone think. "It's always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness."
This is a tale told by a ghost, with a chorus of ghosts: the maids, accusing, haunting Odysseus even down in Hades, dooming him to a restless fate. There are some light-hearted glimpses of ghost-life: Helen with her entourage of admirers, determined to reward them by bathing nude. "We're spirits now, Helen," says Penelope. "Spirits don't have bodies. They don't get dirty. They don't need baths." "Oh," says Helen airily, "but my reason for taking a bath was always spiritual." And the summonings, by magicians and conjurors and tedious table-tapping spiritualists: Penelope is as much an aristocrat as ever, and her contempt for such things is clear; but, as she says, she doesn't get out much.
A Learned Friend expressed disquiet at the influence of Graves' 'Penelope as cult goddess' theory, and the role of the maids as priestesses: but this seems more a footnote than an integral plot element. Penelope is very human, and her cleverness -- not to mention her small victories over husband and son -- is mortal cleverness. Her relationship with her son, and her understanding of his dilemma -- losing his inheritance to the suitors, losing more each day that Penelope's alive and keeping them waiting -- makes perfect sense, both in the timeless sense of human emotions and in the context of a world view that prescribes supernatural punishments for mortal crimes.
There are no gods in this tale, though Penelope's Naiad mother is not precisely human. Penelope, in any case, has little time for a capricious pack of deities, "mischievous as a pack of ten-year-olds with a sick cat to play with and a lot of time on their hands": she gives as much credence to tales of Odysseus beguiled by some high-class prostitute as to the tale of his sojourn with Calypso. Odysseus' tale requires the gods, the supernatural, the grand epic scale of feuds in heaven and the venegful fury of wind and wave. Penelope's requires only human nature.