BOOK REVIEW: Penelope’s Daughter by Laurel Corona
By Kit-Bacon GressittIf Homer’s Odyssey left you wondering “But what about the women?”, author Laurel Corona’s new historical novel, Penelope’s Daughter, provides some fascinating answers in a story that cleverly parallels Homer’s epic poem.
As was the Odyssey, Penelope’s Daughter is about the struggle to overcome obstacles with cunning, rather than brute force; the sorrow of separation from loved ones; life as a journey of growth. Corona’s protagonist, however, is a woman, Xanthe, a daughter Odysseus was unaware he had conceived with Penelope prior to departing for the Trojan War. And Xanthe, who narrates the book, has plenty to say about her father’s 20-year absence, her lackluster brother Telemachus, her distant but adoring mother, Penelope, the gods who protect and bedevil them, and the horde of brutish suitors who hound the family in a quest to gain control of Odysseus’ realm.
Corona, award-winning author of The Four Seasons, is a humanities professor at San Diego City College. Her book seems painstakingly researched. She offers those who thrive on historical detail a fabulous harvest of ancient daily-living details, from housekeeping, grooming and farming to social mores and rituals. In the first third of the book, the level of detail might pose a bit of a challenge for readers eager to delve into the plot and not come up for air until the end. However, the first section also introduces Xanthe’s narrative gift, as she launches her story with Odysseus’ battle for vengeance, upon his return home to Sparta, and she begins recounting her own adventures from childhood through her present day.
Resigned to telling her stories through the warp and weft of her loom, as the battling men decide her fate, Xanthe begins each chapter with a lush description of the literal and figurative fabric of her life. She says of the women of her era, “Even more than our wombs, our weaving is the measure of us.” Corona’s lovely, descriptive writing lends a beautiful voice to Xanthe, as she demonstrates her worth as a weaver and a woman of internal substance.
Through Xanthe’s eyes, Corona enables the reader to envision the ancient landscapes in which her story is told. The flora and fauna, the sun and moon in their various phases, the scents and flavors of an ancient time that remains so appealing today; all enlivened with the added dimension of a woman’s perspective.
Xanthe spins a rich and colorful story that explores motivations of some of Homer’s original characters and recounts her own painful and passionate coming of age — in an era in which most women are mystical, forbearing chattel; most men behave toward them as lascivious louts; and both are manipulated by the gods’ fickle will.
The story of Helen of Sparta, then Troy, as told by Xanthe, reveals the dubious nature of the gods, as Helen is unbearably tempted by the goddess Aphrodite’s spell, tearfully lands in Paris’ arms, and is off to Troy, an interesting spin on various ancient texts. In fact, reading Corona’s book, you might wonder, had more women been our ancient historians, how much different our history might be.
Like the Odyssey, Penelope’s Daughter serves as both myth and historical document. Unlike the Odyssey, Corona’s novel has the appeal of three-dimensional characters whose lives seem plausible and relevant; whose foibles are human, not mythic; whose quests are realistic, not the fancy of devious gods.
It might be that Xanthe’s story could not have been told in the first millennium B.C.E., because the era’s male chroniclers would have seen no value in it. But to those who hunger for women’s historical perspectives, Penelope’s Daughter is quite a satisfying tale.
Publisher: Berkley Books Binding: Paperback and e-book Author’s website: laurelcorona.com
Crossposted at the North County Times.