Margaret Finnegan’s novel The Goddess Lounge turns Homer’s The Odyssey inside out. I know this not because I’ve read The Odyssey, but because I read its Wikipedia page. You don’t have to be familiar with Homer to laugh your way through Finnegan’s tale, but if you’re an Odyssey scholar (as is Finnegan), you’ll find her book spilling over with treasure.
Finnegan’s heroine Penne (“named for a noodle”) tells her story in a smart, yet harried voice. She’s an Altadena mom, a schoolteacher, and a housewife whose husband, Owen, has left her for an alluring younger woman. On top of that, Penne’s 13-year-old daughter is mean with a capital “M,” the 110 is backed up, the rain is relentless, and Penne’s movie star mother (who believes that “goddesses take our personal calls”) has tricked her into a consultation in the inner sanctum—aka the “mentrual tent”—at the Goddess Lounge.
Penne’s consultation doesn’t go well, yet it marks the beginning of her odyssey, and her search for Owen. She doesn’t really want him back, but she tells herself that Grace Claire needs her father. Penne routinely lies to herself this way, and she swears even more, yet we forgive her and even sympathize with her because, well, we’ve all lied to ourselves, haven’t we? Even used the “F” word. Or at least wanted to.
The word “odyssey” comes from the name of its hero, Odysseus, and means “trouble.” It has also come to mean an epic journey. Penne is joined on much of hers by Owen’s erstwhile boss, William. He needs to find Owen, too. Perhaps. Or maybe he needs to protect Penne from his insane ex-girlfriend, or maybe he just needs to be with Penne. In Penne’s case, if she continues to lie to herself about her feelings for William, she may never know.
Penne’s dishonesty is familiar. “Everything’s fine; my daughter’s not mean; I’m coping; the neighbors are not upset with me; I’m not falling in love with this man….” But she knows what she wants (to find Owen), even if she’s not sure what she needs (a personal transformation).
When her daughter is accused of bullying another student at school, Penne plies her with hot chocolate and tells us, “While she takes a sip, I settle down next to her and give her a look of deep compassion. It’s not so hard. What you do is tilt your head and kind of swallow your lower lip while you crinkle your eyes. Grace Claire’s therapist calls this ‘cultivating a demeanor of active listening.'”
Penne’s voice drives the novel (funny, smart), and if you’re okay with the “F” word, you’ll be fine. Finnegan’s voice is here, too, with wisdom and delicious touches like Charlotte Perkins Gilman Middle School and the Dashed Sails nightclub in downtown Los Angeles.
How do goddesses figure into all of this? At first, Penne’s quite sure that they don’t. At her consultation, she’s told that Venus is her goddess, but she doesn’t buy it. As far as she knows, Venus is about sex, beauty, and love, and frankly, she’s the opposite—a housewife from the ‘burbs whose husband can’t bother to stick around. But as circumstances push Penne to her limit, she finally meets her inner Venus and discovers the superpowers her goddess has to offer.
“Enlightment can be reached through years of study or it can hit you like a pie in the face,” says Penne. When that pie comes flying her way, she’s ready.
Fans of The Odyssey will recognize Penelope’s suitors in Penne’s pack of ill-mannered but adoring rescue dogs. They’ll also find the Lotus Eaters, the Cyclops, and a Siren, adapted ingeniously to Penne’s inside-out odyssey. The Circe episode is especially rich, with pigs, food, rifles, and more food.
But you don’t need to be familiar with The Odyssey to enjoy Penne’s adventures, laugh at her snark, and applaud her victories. Penne’s journey is about the discovery of her inner Venus and the power she shares with all women. It’s about belief in the divine feminine, the myth and reality of that power, and the withholding or wielding of it to protect what is rightfully yours (even against other women if necessary). It is about the deep down mother in all women; the mother who feeds her family, fights for justice, protects her babies, and above all, stands up for herself.
Margaret Finnegan’s work has appeared in Salon, the L.A. Times, FamilyFun, and other publications. She lives with her husband, two children, and her dog, Scout, in South Pasadena. She is partial to all of them, but must admit that the dog gives her the least grief, for which she is grateful.
Hometown Author Petrea Burchard‘s new novel, Camelot & Vine, comes out this winter. Her blog, Pasadena Daily Photo, is featured on Hometown Pasadena’s “Best Blogs in San Gabriel Valley.” Petrea’s 30-year acting career began morphing into a writing career with “Act As If,” her humor column about the journeyman actor’s life, now in reruns at NowCasting.com. She gained a following in the animé world as the original English voice of Ryoko, a space pirate in the cult classic Tenchi Muyo!, and continues voice-over work as the voice of Stater Bros. markets.