I have read Oryx and Crake earlier this year and I could not resist the pull of Margaret Atwood. I saw a tattered paperback smiling at me from a charity window, £1 for a great classic. I paid the meagre price and I got back a lot more than I was expecting. Witty, funny, deeply cutting, a book about a modern woman of the 21st century living in the 60’s – when the morals were a lot stricter and the definition of a woman was who she married.
The story could be summarised in one sentence but as most self-discovery books are, it’s deeper than the surface:
Marian, a 20-something woman in 1960s Toronto, gets engaged to her dull-but-respectable lawyer boyfriend, Peter, then soon begins losing her appetite for food
While reading, I had to constantly remind myself this was written in the 60’s, too advanced for the hippies movement and too retro for the disco age. The novel should have been called “The lost woman” or the maybe “How I found myself” as the story centres a woman who is losing her inner most being and her sense of purpose after being proposed to by her long term boyfriend. She is looking at her life critically: her love life and her dead-end job, surrounded by women who are either married or virgins, with no means to get promoted other than the death of her supervisor.
She is an exception rather than a common woman, educated and ambitious in a time when both were frowned upon.
“What else can I do? Once you’ve gone this far you aren’t fit for anything else. Something happens to your mind. You’re overqualified, overspecialized, and everybody knows it. Nobody in any other game would be crazy enough to hire me. I wouldn’t even make a good ditch-digger, I’d start tearing apart the sewer-system, trying to pick-axe and unearth all those chthonic symbols – pipes, valves, cloacal conduits… No, no. I’ll have to be a slave in the paper-mines for all time.”
She has two female friends, opposites by nature – Ainslie is a calculating free spirit whose only desire is to get pregnant (and do this by breaking the rules of society that require a woman to be married to do so), – the other is a college graduate who found happiness in domestic life: a good husband and a plethora of children, drifting purposeless through life, letting her beloved do all the house work.
We get along by a symbiotic adjustment of habits and with a minimum of that pale-mauve hostility you often find among women.
With these two role models (and one more in the form of a single old lady raising a child (“Think of what the child would think!”)), she finds herself oddly attracted to a man she meets at a laundromat of all places, a student studying for finals.
“I sort of like watching them,” he said; “I watch laundromat washers the way other people watch television, it’s soothing because you always know what to expect and you don’t have to think about it. Except I can vary my programmes a little; if I get tired of watching the same stuff I can always put in a pair of green socks or something colourful like that.”
Even though she is engaged to be married, she keeps coming back to the student, like a moth attracted to the flame. He offers her something she is craving for but had no name: independence and equal love.
As she denies to herself the idea of her married, she also denies herself food.
She cannot stomach food anymore. She stops eating meat because she can see the pain of the animals who died. She over-visualises what she is putting in her mouth and then rejecting it logically (and sometimes illogically). As she is losing her appetite and starts diminishing in size, she suddenly has a vision of herself disappearing. Of her not being anything. A decoration to a man. An ornament in the house. Her in a red dress watching from the distance as the world seems to move without noticing her.
“…she was afraid of losing her shape, spreading out, not being able to contain herself any longer, beginning (that would be worst of all) to talk a lot, to tell everybody, to cry.”
This is when she takes action and runs off to the only man who did not promise her anything. She sleeps with him (I had the feeling that it was quite bad for both) and returns home in the morning.
I can tell you’re admiring my febrility. I know it’s appealing, I practice at it; every woman loves an invalid. But be careful. You might do something destructive: hunger is more basic than love. Florence Nightingale was a cannibal you know.
While she is debating what to tell her angry boyfriend/fiancee, she starts making a cake.
A cake of herself, filled with underwear and a dress, and a hair piece made of butter cream.
She asks him to take a bite of “her”. To eat her cake meant that he would accept her as who she was. She would be in him as he would be in her. They would have been one.
He does not get it. No man – except those of a specific stand or form – would get it.
And when he runs out of the apartment where she was living, terrified of her, of what she had become, she gets her appetite back. And she eats the cake.
“That’s what you get for being food.”
Score: 5/5. I could not put it down. A must read for any woman – and not only.
Very different from her latter books, “The Edible Woman” is about the destructive power of man-woman relationships and it takes place in a world of robotic emotions and mechanical compulsions.
Food metaphors abound in the early chapters. Marian’s office “company is layered like an ice-cream sandwich, with the three floors: the upper crust, the lower crust, and out department, the gooey layer in the middle.” Furthermore, the humidity in the office is unbearable: “The air-conditioning system, I saw, had failed again, though since it is merely a fan which revolves in the centre of the ceiling, stirring the air around like a spoon in soup, it makes little difference whether it is going or not.”
One of the cleverest moves was switching the POV, once Marian starts becoming unstable, from first-person to third-person. It’s as if Marian begins viewing what’s happening to her at a remove. She’s alienated from herself.
And the secondary characters are all highly amusing, from the forthright Ainslie to Marian’s co-workers – dubbed “the office virgins,” all sporting dyed blonde hair – to Duncan, a boyish grad student who’s everything Peter isn’t. The literary digressions by Duncan and his academic roommates might seem commonplace today – psychosexual interpretations of Alice In Wonderland, etc. (think of the eating metaphors in it) – back then they must have been incredibly refreshing.
I also like wondering if Duncan is real or a figment of Marian’s imagination.
The book holds up incredibly well. There are still lots of Marians and Peters out there, and society’s obsession with food, consumption and the glamorization of the ideal life has grown exponentially over nearly 50 years.
A brilliant fictional debut by a writer who would go on to become one of the most influential and prolific voices of her generation