[BOOK REVIEW] An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

GOOD Morning Wilton‘s book reviewer, Gayathri Kaimal, is a rising junior at Wilton High School and an avid reader who hopes to share her love of reading through her reviews. You can learn more about Gayathri on GMW‘s “Our Team” page. 

When reading Homer’s Odyssey, it is easy to get caught up in the adventure and escapades of the hero — tricking cyclops, fending off monsters, dealing with gods in disguise. Part of the appeal is the fantastical, gripping nature of his deeds.

However, the Odyssey remains relevant today not because of the surface-level excitement of mythical exploits, but rather because the ideas Homer explores and the questions to which he seeks answers are not frozen in time. The Odyssey is not stuck in the 8th or 7th century BCE — it is still alive today, almost three millennia later.

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn is a testament to the enduring nature of the classics, as Mendelsohn and his father relive the Odyssey together, as so many generations of fathers and sons have done.

An Odyssey takes place in several different locations: a classroom, where Professor Mendelsohn is bewildered by his elderly father’s decision to participate in his college seminar on the Odyssey; the past, where Mendelsohn reflects on both his and his father’s childhood; the post-fall period, where Mendelsohn comes to terms with his father’s accident; and a cruise, where Mendelsohn and his father attempt to retrace the journey of Odysseus, noting that, “The one word in the English language that combines all of the various resonances that belong severally to ‘voyage’ and ‘journey’ and ‘travel’ — the distance but also the time, the time but also the emotion, the arduousness and the danger — comes not from Latin but from Greek. That word is odyssey.”

Woven into this biographical story is literary analysis and critique of Homer — as a professor, Mendelsohn cannot resist teaching us, explaining the meaning and significance of phrases like arkhe kakon (the beginning of bad things) and the structure of the Odyssey itself. This explanation is essential, as Mendelsohn mimics these techniques in his own retelling.

Unlike a typical memoir or biography, An Odyssey uses a nonlinear structure to fully capture the relationship between father and son. Mendelsohn describes this decision in real time, clarifying that, “In ring composition, the narrator will start to tell a story only to pause and loop back to some earlier moment that helps explain an aspect of the story he’s telling — a bit of personal or family history, say — and afterward might even loop back to some earlier moment or object or incident that will help account for that slightly less early moment, thereafter gradually winding his way back to the present, the moment in the narrative that he left in order to provide all this background.”

Though he is specifically addressing the works of Herodotus and Homer, he is also addressing his own writing, creating another parallel between the two. His use of these digressions allows, as he explains, “a single narrative, even a single moment, [to] contain a character’s entire biography.”

An Odyssey does not solely revolve around the life of Daniel Mendelsohn, or that of his father. Instead, it focuses on the relationship between the two. Homer’s Odyssey begins with a son (Telemachus) searching for his father (Odysseus) — An Odyssey replicates that search. Mendelsohn and his father disagree in their interpretation of the Odyssey — his father refuses to consider Odysseus a hero (ironic, as An Odyssey continuously draws parallels between Odysseus and Mendelsohn’s father) — but they also embark on a journey together, searching for answers to the questions the Odyssey poses, like, “Which is the true self?” and, “How many selves might a man have?”

Mendelsohn answers these with stories full of digressions, and “twists and turns.” However, this story of a father and son is not contained to that of Mendelsohn and his father. It is reenacted by Mendelsohn’s father and grandfather, and by Mendelsohn and his own children. Though the setting has changed, the story Mendelsohn tells and the story Homer told so many centuries ago, of a son trying to understand his father, is fundamentally the same.

As Mendelsohn puts it, “The story starts with a son who goes to rescue his father, but, as sometimes happens when travel is involved, the journey home ended up eclipsing the drama that had set it in motion.”