In college we read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. I haven’t read many novels in verse since.
But last summer I discovered a book I love dearly, Sonya Sones’s The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus. This witty, poignant novel in verse is not quite a classic, but it is beautifully-crafted and entertaining, inhabiting the realm between chick lit and poetry. Middle-aged readers will identify readily with the narrator, Holly, who humorously faces menopause, is saddened by her daughter’s move to college, worries that her husband may be having an affair, and is shocked when her mother across the country suddenly has a health crisis.
This novel is very original but was not widely reviewed, as far as I can see. Sones has written several Y.A. novels in verse and this is her first adult novel.
There is so much good in this novel that it’s too bad that the ending shifts to safe terrain, and in a way betrays the novel’s beauty and Holly’s voice. I imagine it’s hard to get away from that Y.A. formula. I very much look forward to her next adult book.
So I’ve looked for other new women’s novels in verse since then and found:
Jane Rawlings’s The Penelopeia: A Novel in Verse. Published in 2003, Jane Rawlings’s The Penelopeia is new to me. I found it in a random internet search. I love reading novels about mythic characters and admire much of this.
It is a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey, written from Penelope’s point of view. In case your Homer is rusty, let me remind you that Penelope is the wife of Odysseus and remained faithful to him for 20 years while he first fought at Troy for 10 years and then struggled to come home to Ithaka for the next 10, delayed by Poseidon.
In Rawlings’s poem, Penelope reveals to Odysseus that she gave birth to twin daughters after his departure. She hid them at her father-in-law’s to keep them safe from the enemies and suitors who invaded Odysseus’s palace. Their son Telemachus, as well as Odysseus, was kept ignorant of the twins. Both men feel betrayed.
To complicate things further, she and her daughters must take a journey to consult the Pythia, the oracle priestess at Pythos.
The Penelopeia is ambitious, but it is a hard act to follow Homer. Parts of Rawlings’s verse are excellent, parts awkward. There are beautiful passages, and then clumsy similes.
Rawlings tells us in her acknowledgements that she has written in the style of Richmond Lattimore’s translation of The Odyssey. I guess that is safer than saying that it is in the style of Homer. Lattimore’s translation is most similar to the Greek, I would say: concise and an almost literal translation.
The Penelopeia is very enjoyable, but then I’m an Odyssey freak. It would be unreadable without knowledge of Homer. But Rawlings also does some quirky modern things: this poem is narrated by the heroine, and first-person narration is not done in Greek epic. She is giving voice to mythic women in a contemporary way.
Yes, it does, doesn’t it?
Watch out, girls. This is not just a novel in verse. It’s a romantic novel in verse.
Is the novel in verse a trend in women’s novels?
Hopkins, like Sones, is a Y.A. writer and this is her first adult book.
This enjoyable if shallow novel is the story of three women: Holly, a desperate housewife married to a successful lawyer and a mother of three who has lost 60 pounds so she can attract men (yes, that’s her main ambition); Andrea, a single mother who works at the DMV and wishes she had a husband like Holly’s; and Marissa, Andrea’s sister, the mother of a gay son and a daughter with SMA (spinal muscular atrophy, a terminal disease) and the wife of an alcoholic husband who has pretty much opted out.
Marissa is the most authentic and interesting character, but as the novel continues Andrea has more opportunities for good relationships and even the superficial Holly grows. Holly begins to write erotica and attends a writers’ group. (The writing is secondary to romance, though, and she’s attracted to a guy in her writer’s group.)
I would not be reading it if it were not in verse. This is not to say it’s a bad book. It’s just not my kind of book. Some of the poetry is surprisingly good (and some bad), but I’m not really a Desperate Housewives kind of person.