The Edible Woman: Review

AtwoodMargaret Atwood‘s first novel, The Edible Woman, was considered a landmark novel when it was published in 1969.  Although Atwood later described her work as protofeminist rather than feminist, her themes of gender stereotyping and objectification of women, reflected some of the central concerns of the burgeoning women’s movement.

Her protagonist is Marian McAlpin, a young single woman on the verge of marriage who feels torn between the role that society expects her to enact and her desire to be her self. Her body’s rejection of food becomes the manifestation of her rejection of the female normative behaviour. First she discovers that meat – anything with “bone or tendon or fiber” – revolts her, then the same thing happens with eggs, carrots and rice pudding.  By the end of the book she seems to exist on little more than a few salad leaves.

Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. At one point she hides from her fiance under a sofa bed; in another science she runs away from him, triggering a bizarre night-time car chase through the streets of a snowbound Canadian city.  As the wedding date gets closer, her sense of her individuality have declined to the point where she no longer recognises herself. Looking into the mirror all she sees is a “tiny, two-dimensional small figure in a red dress, posed like a paper woman in a mail order catalogue turning and smiling, fluttering.”

Will she or won’t she wed is a question that gets resolved in a truly imaginative way right in the final pages. It’s about the only part of the book that I enjoyed. The rest was a plod to the extent I wouldn’t have bothered reading beyond about page 70 if this hadn’t been the monthly book club choice.  Accepting that the issues with which it deals have moved on significantly since the late 60s so didn’t have as much resonance as it did for contemporary readers, my main issues were that  I didn’t feel any empathy with Marian – in fact I found her passivity tiresome – and I was lacking the sparkle that I’ve experienced in Atwood’s other works.

Here is a woman who knows that her fiance Peter treats her with little respect, almost like a child. He constantly tells her what to wear and how to act,  and she is uncomfortable that his love-making gives her the feeling “she was on  doctor’s examination table” or that he regularly rests his ashtray on her back as though she were a  a table.  Yet she doesn’t say anything or do anything to change the situation, just drifts along with the status quo.

The other characters are even less likeable; actually I found them distasteful. There’s her flatmate, Ainsley, who decides she wants to have a baby without having a husband because she thinks they ruin families. So she seduces someone, gets pregnant by him, doesn’t understand why he should be so angry about being used by her and simply tells him she wants nothing more to do with him  But when she reads that children raised without fathers are liable to be homosexual, she  changes her mind and begins insisting he marries her.

Another friend is married to someone who thinks the answer to the problem that educated women lose their sense of individual personality when they get married, is for her to produce lots of babies and attend the occasional evening class.

The Edible Woman launched Margaret Atwood’s as a prose writer of major significance. I’m so glad that it wasn’t the first I read by her because I would have been highly unlikely to read another. And that would have meant I missed out on  gems like The Handmaiden’s Tale and Blind Assassin.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on June 16, 2013, in Book Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I’ve never been really easy with Atwood. I read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ when it first came out but was probably too young in my feminism to truly appreciate it. And then a friend who is a great fan persuaded me to read ‘Alias Grace’ which I ploughed my way through swearing that I would never read another Atwood word. Fortunately, ‘The Blind Assassin’ and ‘Oryx and Crake’ turned up as book group reads and I did enjoy them both. Where would you suggest I go next, given that I’m still not quite certain I’m on her side?

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    • I find her a bit hit and miss too Alex. I enjoyed Alias Grace though honestly now I can’t remember a thing about it. Oryx and Grace I gave up on after about 20 pages. Try The Cat’s Eye or maybe some of her short stories…

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  2. I’ll have to go back and read this again some day. I loved it when I was 19, but can’t remember a thing about it. Since then, if I’ve ever heard of anyone reading it they’ve not been impressed. But I remember it making me laugh. Perhaps it was just in comparison to the 19th century German literature I’d been reading it seemed packed full of fun and jokes!

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    • I can imagine just about anything would seem funny in comparison to 19thC german literature. Some people in the book club thought it was funny but I couldn’t find any humour at all…..

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  3. I’ve never read anything by Atwood although I feel like I should. I think I am a little intimidated by her work! I will make a note though that this is probably not the novel to start with if I’m ever brave enough to pick up one of her novels.

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    • No reason to be intimated Jessica. You can read her on different levels I think. Cat’s Eye and the Handmaiden’s Tale are her most famous novels so may be a good place to start

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  4. I find that I either adore or feel completely unsure about Atwood’s novels. Alias Grace is sublime whereas I recently read ‘Surfacing’ and felt a little nonplussed. However, the thing that has become clear to me is that, whether you appreciate what she’d trying to do in some of her novels or not, her writing is just….well, perfect..I’d give anything to be able to express myself like she does….
    Good to read the big ones like the Handmaid’s Tale before venturing out to the older ones though like you say…

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  5. Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader

    I haven’t read nearly enough of Atwood and I need to remedy that.

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