Saturday, April 9, 2011

Girl on Book Action: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood
ISBN: 0-7704-2822-3


Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin: she can’t eat.  First meat.  Then eggs, vegetables, cake, pumpkin seeds – everything!  Worse yet, she has the crazy feeling that she’s being eaten.  Marian ought to feel consumed with passion.  But really she just feels...consumed.  A brilliant and powerful work rich in irony and metaphor, The Edible Woman is an unforgettable masterpiece by a true master of contemporary literary fiction.


My Thoughts:

Every so often, I feel a real sense of guilt about the amount of time I spend reading various fantasy novels. I have been particularly indulgent in the last couple of years, so the guilt is building up.  I think it has to do with having been an English major.   Whenever this happens, I pick up a book that will keep me from flagellating myself.  You know, something with ideas and issues.  Long story short, this week on the blog, I will share my most recent trip into the world of literary fiction.  Yes, I know, I have on occasion tortured you with these kinds of posts before, but, you like it, or you wouldn’t be here, reading me go on and on.

First off, while some of the ideals in this novel are a bit dated – it was first published in 1969 I think, so must have been written sometime during the ‘60s, many, sadly are not.  There are still prudish ideas out there about sex before marriage, and about women raising children alone, women choosing to have children alone more specifically, about women not working after they are married, really, about all sorts of things having to do with women.  And while we’re no longer worrying about the length of our skirts, we have a whole slew of new beauty things to worry about.  There is still pressure for all of us to be “sensible girls,” whatever the hell that actually means.

Right, where was I before going off on a tangential semi-rant?  Atwood, The Edible Woman, my erudite thoughts on the novel, yes. 

Ultimately, what spoke to me most about this novel wasn't the feminism (though you know I love that).  Rather it was the description of grad students.  In one of those odd turns of coincidence, this book came along at the perfect time for me (despite being written 50 odd years ago) as right now I'm struggling towards the end of my degree. The Edible Woman spoke to some of the soul-crushing cynicism that seems to be part of the thesis writing process.  It's good to know I'm not alone in feeling these things.    And now, I will do something I rarely do on here, and share with you a quote that I found to be particularly effective.  One which will likely come back to haunt me whenever I feel cynical about the future: 

“‘It looks exciting when you’re an eager brilliant undergraduate.  They all say, Go on to graduate studies, and they give you a bit of money; and so you do, and you think, Now I’m going to find out the real truth.  But you don’t find out, exactly, and things get pickier and pickier and more and more stale, and it all collapses in a welter of commas and shredded footnotes, and after a while it’s like anything else: you’ve got stuck in it and you can’t get out, and you wonder how you got there in the first place.’” (pg 117).   

Now, of course, it’s not all like that, it only seems like that on the bad days.  Still this is an effective description of the quagmire I and some of my grad student buddies feel we are stuck in.  Also, it’s a good example of Atwood’s style and her insightfulness.  Really, the graduate students were my favourite part of this book – with their piles of papers that cannot under any circumstance be disturbed because it’ll completely discombobulate them and their ingrained habits.

Along these lines, I enjoyed the juxtaposition of Marian’s fiancĂ©, Peter, a conservative law-student, and the eccentric Duncan.  I hated Peter from the beginning.  When we first meet him, he is throwing a tantrum that the last of his fellow bachelor friends is getting married, an event Marian treats with patience becoming of a saint.  He spends the whole novel being polite and concerned, but it's all posturing, a convenient veneer that crumbles as soon as Marian's behaviour in any way infringes on his precious reputation.  Duncan, on the other hand, is blithely self-absorbed and somehow that comes off as endearing rather than annoying.  The way he almost exists in another world, and his easy way of lying about pretty well anything, somehow undercut his lack of empathy.  He comes across as a trickster figure, not loveable, but intriguing, an injection of chaos into Marian’s “sensible,” ordered life.

What I’m trying to get at in a long-winded sort of way, is that Atwood is good at depicting people and relationships (I know, I know, huge surprise!).  I ended up reading the last 200ish pages in just about one sitting, because I was so drawn into the interaction between Duncan, Marian and Peter.  I needed to know how their entanglement ends.

Flaws?  Well, I guess I didn’t particularly like Marian and it’s a hard thing not to like a protagonist in a novel like this.  She's your window into this social scene and not identifying with her takes away from some of the impact of the events that happen.  I was more interested in the side-characters, like Duncan, or even Marian’s roommate Ainsley.  The story wouldn’t exist if Marian wasn’t such a “sensible” girl, but...I guess I just don’t like “sensible” girls.  The beginning was a bit slow to catch my full attention, but it definitely picked up steam.  By the last half of the book, I was unable to put it down.  This sounds like a compliment, but the pacing was really very uneven.
If you’re looking for something witty, that might even make you laugh every so often, but with a serious undertone of still-relevant issues you could do worse than read The Edible Woman.  It’s standard-fare Atwood before she turned to saving the environment instead of saving women.  Oh and one last, short quote, because I can’t help myself and I really love this one:

“We get along by a symbiotic adjustment of habits and with a minimum of that pale-mauve hostility you often find among women.” (pg. 10).

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