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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cat's Eye

Author: Margaret Atwood
Challenge: My Year of Reading Dangerously, YA Challenge
Rating: 4/5

This is my third Atwood in as many months, and I admire her style greatly, but it is kind of like admiring a modernist painting in a museum. Yes, its sharp, well-down, but its not real cuddly and cute.

In this book, Atwood delves into the secret cruelties that girls impose on each other. Elaine Risley, a middle-aged Canadian painter is coming back to her childhood city of Toronto for the opening of a new show. While she wanders along the vaguely familiar streets, she relives her memories.

We learn at the start the outline of her life; she is divorced and remarried, she had a friend named Cordelia who was important in her life, she had a brother who liked to talk about abstract philosophical concepts. The rest of the book is about filling in the details. We learn about her childhood, first wandering like nomads with her parents and brother. She and her brother are very close as children, they do not have any other friends to play with.

Until I moved to Toronto I was happy. Before that we didn't really live anywhere; or we lived so many places it was hard to remember them. We spent a lot of the time driving, in our low-slung, boat-sized Studebaker, over back roads or along two-lane highways up north, curving past lake after lake..."

When they finally settle into a house, Elaine learns, for the first time, the perils of female friendship. She makes friends with Carol out of practicality. They both need someone to sit with at lunch. Through Carol, she meets Grace, and Cordelia.

Ruthlessly Atwood dissects the uneasy relationship between the girls. Though before Cordelia joins their group, Grace invites one or the other friend over and feels sick as soon as they start doing something she doesn't want to, Cordelia is ruthless in her cruelty.

On the window ledge beside mine, Cordelia and Grace and Carol are sitting, jammed in together, whispering and giggling. I have to sit in a window ledge by myself because they aren't speaking to me. It's something I said wrong, but I don't know what it is because they won't tell me. Cordelia says it will be better for me to think back over everything I've said today and try to pick out the wrong thing. That way I will learn not to say such a thing again. When I've guessed the right answer, then they will speak to me again. All of this is for my own good, because they are my best friends and they want to help me improve....I can't remember having said anything different from what I would ordinarily say.

This passage is the very first time Cordelia tries out her power over the other girls. She learns quickly how to manipulate and control, soon Elaine is anxious and depressed all of the time, scraping the skin off the bottom of the her feet, biting her nails until they bleed. Oh this passage sent shivers down my spine, because how well do I remember a similar incident when I was younger. In my case, there was a teacher that I ran to for help. Elaine has no one. Reflecting back, Elaine knows that her mother must have been aware of the situation, but feels that her mother must have felt unable to help her.

This book is not only about girlhood cruelty. But that does take up a large chunk of the book. Inexplicably, once they are in high school, Elaine starts walking to school with Cordelia and they fall once again into a friendship. Though they call each other best friends, Elaine has become the confident one, the one with the smart, cutting remarks.

I have a denser, more malevolent little triumph to finger: energy has passed between (Cordelia and I), and I am stronger.

Elaine finds her way to art in college and her abstract, surrealistic paintings are of objects and people from her childhood. She falls in love with two very different men, but disaster tinges both relationships. She joins a feminist group, and watches her paintings become labeled "feminist" although she isn't quite sure she fits in.

These meetings are supposed to make me feel more powerful, and in some ways they do.... But these meetings also make me nervous, and I don't understand why. I don't say much, I am awkward and uncertain, because whatever I do might be the wrong thing. I have not suffered enough, I haven't paid my dues, I have no right to speak. I feel as if I'm standing outside a closed door while decisions are being made.... At the same time I want to please.

This is a slower-paced book, rather like The Blind Assassin. It is complex, introducing us to ideas, themes, then casually dropping them only to bring them up later. You could say the book is about gender, and you'd be right. You could say the book is about the interplay between our childhood and how we turn out as adults, or that it is a character narrative, and you'd be right as well. This book is about a lot of things. That makes it a hard book to summarize, but let me emphasize that if you have the time to sink down into her prose, this is a fascinating (if somewhat chilling) look into female relationships.


Andi said...

I've returned to this one after laying it aside for a while. Really enjoying it.

Melody said...

Sounds good. I think I've three of her books sitting in my pile. One of these days I've to read one of them.

Rhinoa said...

Cute and cuddly she isn't! I love what I have read so far by her and am due to start The Blind Assassin soon. I have Cat's Eye waiting for me at some stage and the two reviews I have read today make me want to read it sooner. At some point I would like to read all of her novels and short fiction.

Debi said...

I've yet to read anything by Atwood. I've picked up The Handmaid's Tale a few times at the book store, but ultimately put it back down. I don't know what it is, but I feel somewhat intimidated by her. Hopefully someday I'll overcome it.

Kim L said...

andi-I look forward to reading what you think about it. It is def. an interesting read.

melody-she is an excellent writer, but her books definitely take some stamina. But worthwhile!

rhinoa-I hope you like The Blind Assassin. I thought it was a good read. A bit intimidating, but it is a book that sticks with you.

debi-she is a somewhat intimidating writer, but of the three books I've read by her so far, The Handmaid's Tale is the most accessible, easy read. I would recommend that one highly.

Nymeth said...

"In this book, Atwood delves into the secret cruelties that girls impose on each other."

This alone got my interested. I know from experience how unbelievably cruel girls can be to one another. I'm going to have to read this one.

Trish said...

I think "chilling" is a great way to describe this book. I read this last summer (it was my third Atwood as well), and I was really haunted by the story--particularly the relationship between Elaine and Cordelia.

Kim L said...

nymeth-I think every girl who's made it to adulthood has a horror story or two. I definitely identified with some of the scenes in the novel. Its a little like "Mean Girls".

trish-definitely! Elaine and cordelia had such a screwed up relationship. Like why did Elaine never once confront Cordelia later on when they were friends about tormenting her when they were younger? Did Elaine's mean streak come from the childhood trauma? Atwood knows how to make you think!

Trish said...

Kim, good questions! It's been a while, so I may be getting the story muddled. But, it almost seemed to me that Elaine was taking a more passive agressive approach through her painting rather than taking a more direct route to confrontation. Maybe Cordelia--even when she was broken down still had a bit of power over Elaine--I think sometimes when people get put into roles for whatever reason it is difficult for them to see themselves in a different light [again, it's been a while so I hope I haven't mixed up reality with the book!]. ANYWAY, Atwood is a crafty and talented writer.

Kim L said...

trish-great thoughts about the book, I hadn't looked at it that way. Elaine definitely could be passive aggressive, especially when it came to Cordelia. Maybe the reason she had so much trouble with the relationships in her life is because she didn't know how to express her feelings very well, she just kind of exploded when she got mad. All throughout the book, she describes events as if they were happening to her while she sits passively allowing them to happen.