My rating: 4 of 5 stars
While I do not know much Greek mythology, I am an absolute sucker for "retold" fairytales. Consequently, a "retold myth" is right up my alley--so long as the original myth is explained. Which, in The Penelopiad, it most certainly is.
Margaret Atwood does an admirable job of introducing the story of The Odyssey right up front: her narrator, Penelope, explains what the "typically believed" story is, so she can spend the rest of the novel debunking it. Her narrative voice is both distinct and believable, and Atwood's telling of the story aligns so well with The Odyssey that it's a wonder no one has tried to tell that myth from the wife's perspective before.
What makes The Penelopiad particularly unique and interesting, however, is the way Atwood intersperses chapters of Penelope's narration with Shakespeare-esque interludes by "The Chorus," i.e. the maids. In some chapters, they "sing" verses of witty, sardonic poetry to further elaborate on whatever event Penelope has just told. In others, they play direct roles in imaginary events, such as in the trial scene at the end of the book.
Atwood is an excellent storyteller, and The Penelopiad illustrates her versatility as a novelist. She can write futuristic novels about imaginary worlds, such as The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake. She can write make historical events come alive in novels such as Alias Grace. And she can retell myths to make us wonder who told the original story and why we did not question it until now. The latter is what she does in The Penelopiad, and she does it well.