Friday, February 17, 2012

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

I love Margaret Atwood, but I actually haven't read a lot of her work. Cat's Eye is not a book I hear people talk about much; however, I found it to be, of her books I've read, the one that most clearly illuminates a feminist lens, and deals with the problematic issues of femininity and female relationships.

The story is about Elaine Risley, a painter who returns to Toronto in middle age for a showing of her work. Her weekend is cut with remembrances of her childhood, moving to the city with her strange (to others) family after early years of basically living in the wild (her father is an entomologist). Elaine has a brother, but has had no relationships with or experience of girls.

Through her three new friends, Carol, Grace and Cordelia, Elaine learns the ropes of femininity and the expectations of her sex through play, as little girls do. They do things like cutting out pictures of women and household items from the Eaton's catalogue and arranging them into scrapbooks, and playing with paper dolls of movie stars. But they also enforce a strange and arbitrary girl code that will be familiar to most girls reading, regardless of age; Cordelia makes up rules and standards that only she can see, but that Carol and Grace blindly enforce, and Elaine, longing to be loved and accepted, has to follow. She develops neuroses and bizarre fears, and is treated with increasing cruelty by her friends, but continues to return to them.

I can't describe much more of the plot because I feel like I can never do it justice. Atwood creates a very, very real girl world long before Mean Girls but similar in scope; an insulated world where no matter how bad things get, the worst thing would be to be cast out. The way Risley's half-remembered childhood influences her construction of herself, and her art, is heartbreaking; Atwood creates strong images and symbols that slowly begin to weave themselves through every aspect of the painter's life. Supposedly this is Atwood's most autobiographical novel ever, and of course it is - this could be any woman's life. The only thing that sets most of us apart from Elaine is that we grow up into the girl world; we learn the rules a little sooner.

The setting of Toronto is seen with cynical eyes. Post-war there is nothing going on; characters are constantly remarking on the lack of interest they have in the place. In the present day (the late 1980s) story, Elaine wanders around downtown and retraces her old steps, but the city itself still seems dreary and stale. The main character's relationship to the city and the period of her life when she lived there is a strong element in the novel, but this book is not exactly a tourist brochure for Toronto.

This is a story about memory and the construction of self; about women and their relationships to each other; and about loss. It was incredibly moving, but mostly just real - I think that for me, that is Atwood's greatest strength: her books are real talk.

I give this one five CN Towers out of five:

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