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Imagine that you have gone back in time 3000 years to the city of Ithaka to greet Odysseus, the sole survivor of a decade of adventures, shipwreck, and mayhem, on his long-awaited return home. Recognized by his loyal dog, he is really a stranger to his son, Telemachos, and even to Penelope, the wife who, flicking off suitors like flies, has managed to keep his household intact. Imagine his shock when she informs him that she has another surprise in store; when he left for Troy some twenty years before, he fathered twin daughters. These daughters, now mature and preternaturally gifted, are determined to travel with their mother to the Pythian oracle to learn what the gods have decreed as their fate and to do the goddess's bidding. Imagine, in other words, the next episodes of The Odyssey told in the voice of a woman, in this case a woman who has faithfully waited for her husband to return, who has diligently performed all her duties as wife and mother, and who now wants to experience the same adventure and freedom as her heroic spouse. An interesting conceit, no? In this ambitious, unusual and riveting story, Rawlings pulls it off splendidly. Recounted in a fast-moving, unrhymed free verse (strongly reminiscent of the Lattimore translation) that both pauses and gallops, she pulls us back into the landscape and the culture of pre-Attic Greece. She makes us see how this tale might have unfolded if Penelope had been celebrated by Homer. She takes us on adventures that would confound even the cunning Odysseus, and brings herself and her daughters back intact to a husband who has been forever changed and a household that has survived her absence. It is a woman's tale unlike any that has ever been written, and it is, at the same time, the stuff of high adventure.
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Penelope, wife of Odysseus, embarks on an epic adventure of her own after her husband returns from his wanderings in this artfully crafted work, an extended narrative poem in the style of Homer (via Richard Lattimore's translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey). The book opens with a startling revelation: while Odysseus has been off on his journeys, his wife, Penelope, has been raising twin daughters, Ailanthis and Nerianne, who were conceived just before he left and have now become young women. Both have ambitions of their own, and after a brief family conference, Penelope and her two daughters visit the Prophetess of Pytho to clarify their respective fates. Following the oracle's prediction, Nerianne elects to stay behind with her and exercise her healing gift of song. Penelope and Ailanthis, meanwhile, set off to visit Helen of Troy and seek a cure for the twins' brother, Telemachos, who has been grievously wounded in an attack by a mysterious beast. After their time in Troy, the women move on to an encounter with Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons, who tries to entice both Ailanthis and Penelope to remain with her. Rawlings shows a flair for the format with her lively, smoothly flowing narrative verse ("I could not keep my smile within me. So there we stood:/two victors flushed with success of the battle or the hunt"), though she occasionally lets her modern values leak into the storytelling. Overall, the author turns a potentially dry, academic conceit into vibrant fiction, bringing to new life the female figures who played a pivotal role in one of the seminal works of world literature.
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*Starred Review* A novel in rolling lines of verse a la Richmond Lattimore's translations of Homer may seem unlikely to be a page-turner, but that is what this startlingly inventive book is. Its form is precisely appropriate to its style, for this is the story of left-behind, stay-at-home epic wife Penelope, who in the Odyssey does little more than fend off suitors while her husband, aiming in the general direction of home, adventures around the Mediterranean. Rawlings starts where Homer leaves off, as Odysseus finally reclaims throne, land, and wife. But surprises are at hand. There are twin daughters, conceived before Odysseus departed and raised in such secrecy that even Telemachos, their brother, was kept in the dark and so couldn't reveal their existence when he met his father in the Odyssey. Penelope's solemn oath to Athena demands that she and her daughters travel to Delphi, but Odysseus is unwilling to abandon his fantasy that Penelope hasn't matured in his absence, despite the fact that she has been running the kingdom. An injury to Telemachos changes the king's mind, and the three females embark on their own odyssey, made more urgent by the need to find a cure for the prince. Stunning scenes follow, especially Penelope's encounters with the Delphic oracle and the warrior Amazons, before a passionate suitor makes Penelope consider whether her loyalty has been misplaced. Perfectly blending form, style, and content, Rawlings makes an unforgettable character out of a mythic cypher. Patricia Monaghan
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