Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lady Oracle

1976, 1978 Avon edition
Margaret Atwood
Lady Oracle
Original price 1.95, purchase price 50 cents
Very worn paperback

I think this is my favorite Atwood book.  It's certainly the one I've read the most.  It's funnier and in some ways quirkier than The Edible Woman, but it has some of the darkness of her later works, including the cruelty that little girls can inflict on each other, which she focuses on in Cat's Eye (coming up in 1988).  I've never read Surfacing (1972), her novel that comes between Edible and this, but it sounds much more serious than either. 

Joan Foster is similar to Marian McAlpin in that they both often have to choose between two unsatisfactory alternatives, in particular a pompous man (Peter and Arthur) vs. a slightly crazy man (Duncan and Chuck).  Joan also has issues with food, longer-lasting than Marian's.  In Joan's case, overeating is a way of rebelling against her controlling mother.  Even after Joan loses weight, "the Fat Lady" lives inside her.

The other "lady" of the novel is Joan's spiritualist side, which makes her accidentally write a best-selling book of poetry when she tries Automatic Writing, and which glimpses her mother dressed ca. 1949 at the most awkward moments.  Joan's Lady Oracle is ironically a trendy version of the Gothic Romances she secretly writes.  There's a great moment when Joan can't remember how many secret identities she has.  Like so much of the book, it's hilarious but surprisingly profound.

This isn't a perfect book.  The ending is too unresolved and introduces yet another man for Joan.  (At one point, the Polish Count who took her virginity treats her at a restaurant run by the first man who proposed to her.)  Also, Atwood's attitude towards rape and child molestation is odd to say the least, as if fat little girls or fat women never get attacked.

Still, there's much to treasure here, from the excerpts of the novels Joan and the Count write (he specializes in "nurse" books) to Joan's tendency to take the "political is personal" too literally.  (She speculates that Mao was much more fun than Stalin.)  I also love Aunt Lou, such a nice balance to Joan's cold mother and distant father.  There are so many moments that are absurd and yet somehow believable in the world of the novel, like the way she says, "I've got to go move the dynamite," as if it's an ordinary errand, when in fact she's already disposed of the dynamite and doesn't care about the radical politics of her husband and friends.

The novel gets a bit vague on how much time it covers.  From 1949 to '64, the dates and Joan's age are clear, but then it's just The Sixties and then The Feminist Seventies.  (Joan's publishers can plan to cash on the Libber demographic and tell her not to worry her pretty little head, all in the same minute.)  The story starts with her "death," and it's definitely not a linear tale, but I found it easy to follow even the first time.  Now I've read it enough I can notice details like Joan painting her face with blue eyeshadow as a little girl, and then again when she "dies."

The next Atwood I'll review, The Handmaid's Tale (1985), will be very different, although like this and Edible, it deals with women's (self-)images.

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