Penelope’s Daughter by Laurel Corona tells the story of Xanthe, the ostensible daughter of Penelope and Odysseus, conceived before Odysseus left for Troy. Xanthe grows up in Ithaca until her mother decides to scuttle her off to Sparta for her own protection. Penelope orchestrates Xanthe’s supposed death and burial. Disguised as a young boy, Xanthe travels to Sparta under the care of Mentor. Once there, she comes under the tutelage of Helen of Troy who embraces her as a companion and daughter. Xanthe spends several years with Helen until Telemachus is sent to escort her back to Ithaca where she witnesses the return of Odysseus and his revenge against the suitors and the women servants who betrayed him. The novel ends with Xanthe’s betrothal to the love of her life, Peisistratus, the youngest son of Nestor.
Since I love reading and writing about myths and the re-tellings of myths, I was looking forward to reading Penelope’s Daughter. I wasn’t disappointed. It was an engaging novel with some interesting elements.
Each chapter begins with Xanthe’s description of the fabric she weaves, explaining how each thread, pattern, and colors represent specific events, people, and phases of her life. Since weaving was the pre-eminent occupation for women at that time, the continuous references to weaving were interesting and convincing for the time period.
Another strength of the novel was its focus on women: their daily lives, their friendships, their rituals, their activities, and their support of each other. It was refreshing to hear women’s voices and to see the world through their eyes as they carved a niche for themselves within the confines of a male dominated society.
Reference to events and characters from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were skillfully woven throughout the narrative. These popped up at unexpected places, with the men behaving in ways true to their characterization in the original epic poems. But for the most part, men and their activities were treated as nuisances and interruptions from the all important focus of women and their activities.
The only issue I have with the novel is with the characterization of Xanthe. She came across as insipid and dull, an uninteresting character more acted upon than acting. Granted, she lives in a heavily patriarchal society with little space to maneuver. However, both Penelope and Helen live in the same society and yet they are far more interesting and emerge as active, vibrant agents with no shortage of cunning up their sleeves. Penelope dupes the suitors by scuttling her daughter out of Ithaca right under their noses. And Helen has her own bag of tricks to navigate the events to her desired outcome. Even Hermione, the daughter of Helen and Menelaus, actively tries to change or forestall events, regardless of how misguided her actions or motives are. But Xanthe is a wallflower relying heavily on others to navigate the situation for her.
Other than the shortcomings of Xanthe’s characterization, Penelope’s Daughter is a well-researched and engaging read. With its description of rituals, the intricacies of weaving, the intermittent appearances of characters familiar to readers of the Odyssey, and its unflinching focus on the lives and activities of women, it will appeal to readers interested in breathing life into mythology, especially since it gives voice to those denied it in the original myths.
Recommended, especially for readers who love mythology and enjoy the re-tellings of ancient stories.