Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Book Review | The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

I have had a copy of The Edible Woman sitting on my bookshelf for about a decade. My brother tended to pass books down the line to me as he finished with them or moved house, and the result is that I have a lot of books I never really wanted, so I never read them. Well, these years have clearly been wasted, then, because Margaret Atwood is incredibly.

The Edible Woman is a 1969 fiction novel, and a great example of Atwood's early writing. It follows Marian, who works at a market research company (hello, mirror to my world) in an unspecified Canadian city. She is in a relationship, and later becomes engaged, to a man who does not really want to understand her, having already decided he knows her ins and outs. It is with an air of inevitability that he proposes to her, and she accepts. There is no turning back.

Marian begins to disintegrate as she is faced with her impending matrimony. Her body rejects all but a few foods, and she begins seeing more of Duncan, a morose English graduate. Her housemate Ainsley hatches a plan to find a suitable father to a child she is hellbent on conceiving, and  chooses one of Marian's close friends as the unknowning victim.

I don't want to spoil the book, so I'm not going to give any more away, but suffice to say that the ending is a sigh of relief for the feminist inside us all. The book is  a great delving into the detachment of body and self. Marian refers to herself in the first and third person depending on how strongly she is identifying with herself. Her bodily rejection of food after food, first red meat, then certain vegetables, right down to rice pudding is a clear cry for change from the pit of her stomach. The cake she bakes at the end, for her fiancĂ© and eaten by her ex lover and herself, is the culmination of all this angst. Once it is consumed entirely, she goes back to being her first person self.

I enjoyed the book for three  reasons. Firstly, the prose are brilliant. I love books which go into depth about everyday domestic things. Descriptions of boiled eggs cooking, shells in the sink, soap rings in the bath, pregnancy, periods and hairspray, all of this fills me with delight. The ordinary is fascinating, and should be celebrated, and a book set primarily in apartment, office, laundromat and supermarket is my idea of perfection.

Secondly, the book appealed to the angry portion of my self. Underneath the polite acceptance, of the office job she must leave upon her marriage announcement, the casual chauvinism of her fiancé, the expectations of the prudish landlady living below, Marian is bubbling with discontent, and when she fails to tackle it head-on, her body begins to protest. Atwood makes no pretence about the emancipated lives of Marian and Ainsley. They are still in a society of conventional gender roles, but these women are not living true to them, they are sexually confident, and there is an element of cynical opportunism to their endeavours.

Thirdly, the book is so relevant for a modern reader (or for this modern reader, anyway). Uncertainty after graduate, getting stuck in bad market research jobs, the difficult transition into complete adulthood, accepting the inevitabilities of life you perhaps find undesirable, none of these issues have gone away. Duncan's monologue on the futile and fruitless nature of postgraduate study might have been written by any one of us with a Masters in something we cannot get a job with.

This book is basically fantastic, and I would recommend reading it, and then reading everything else in Atwoods back catalogue. That's what I'm going to spend the next few months doing, so I'll see you there.


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