Margaret Atwood Reading Month: Surfacing and The Edible Woman

For the Margaret Atwood Reading Month hosted by Marcie and Naomi, I read her first two novels – though I didn’t realize they were so at the time, and read them in reverse order. These were my 18th and 19th Atwood books overall, and my 11th and 12th of her novels. It was particularly interesting to see the germ of her frequent themes in these early works.

 

Surfacing (1972)

(At 186 pages, this just about fit into Novellas for November too!) A young Canadian woman has returned to her French-speaking hometown, ostensibly to search for her missing father but really to search for herself. She’s an illustrator at work on a collection of Quebec folk tales, and in her past are a husband and child that she left behind. With her at her father’s lakeside cabin are her boyfriend Joe, whom she’s not sure she loves, and their friends David and Anna, a married couple whose dynamic is rather disturbing – David is always making demeaning sexualized jokes about Anna, who is afraid for him to see her without makeup on.

This is a drifting, dreamy sort of book whose gorgeous nature writing (“Above the trees streaky mackerel clouds are spreading in over the sky, paint on a wet page; no wind at lake level, soft feel of the air before rain”) inures you to various threats. You’re never sure just how serious they’ll turn out to be. Will the men’s attitude to women spill over into outright assault? Will there be some big blowup with the resented Americans who are monopolizing the lake? (“We used to think they were harmless and funny and inept and faintly lovable, like President Eisenhower.”)

Meanwhile, the question of her father’s whereabouts becomes less and less important as the book goes on. The narrator seems to have closed herself off to emotion, but all that’s repressed returns dramatically in the final 20 pages (“From any rational point of view I am absurd; but there are no longer any rational points of view.”).

I suspect there may be a fair bit I missed; the book would probably benefit from future re-readings and even some exploration of secondary sources to think about all that’s going on. It’s maybe not as accessible and plot-heavy as much of Atwood’s later work, but I found it to be an intriguing and rewarding read, and it still feels timely more than four decades later.

 

The Edible Woman (1969)

Marian McAlpin works for Seymour Surveys, administering questionnaires about rice pudding and a new brand of beer. She shares an apartment with Ainsley, who tests electric toothbrushes, in the home of a harridan of a landlady who monitors their every move. Marian is happy enough with her boyfriend Peter and gradually drifts into an engagement – but she can’t stop thinking about Duncan, an apathetic graduate student whom she met during her survey rounds and ran into again at the laundromat. Duncan represents a sort of strings-free relationship that contrasts with the traditional marriage she’d have with Peter. Her challenge is to overcome the inertia of convention and decide what she really wants from her life.

Part Two’s shift from first person to third person is a signal that Marian is dissociating from her situation. She recoils from food and pregnancy – two facts of bodily life that the book’s characters embrace greedily or turn from in horror. Gradually Marian eliminates more and more foods from her diet, starting with meat. And while Ainsley concocts a devious plan to get pregnant by Marian’s friend Len, Marian keeps in mind the cautionary tale of her college friend Clara, whose three monstrous children are always peeing on people or going off to poop in corners. Marian perceives Clara as having given up her mind in favor of her womb.

It’s unclear whether we’re meant to see Marian’s experience as a temporary eating disorder or a physical manifestation of endangered femininity. Now that veganism is mainstream, it sounds dated to hear her lamenting, “I’m turning into a vegetarian, one of those cranks; I’ll have to start eating lunch at Health Bars.” In any case, you can spot themes that will recur in Atwood’s later work, like the threat of the male gaze (Surfacing), the perception of the female body (Lady Oracle), manipulation of pregnancy (The Handmaid’s Tale) and so on. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this novel, but I liked the food metaphors and laughed at the over-the-top language about babies.

 

Have you read any of Margaret Atwood’s books recently?

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28 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood Reading Month: Surfacing and The Edible Woman

  1. Am I the only reasonably well educated woman in the western world who doesn’t get on with Margaret Atwood? I think so, yet I find it hard to know why. The last one I read was The Heart goes Last. Maybe I’m not good at darkly droll and slightly sci-fi.

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    1. Debbie (Ex Urbanis) is even Canadian, but was turned off Atwood by The Edible Woman in school. Atwood has written in so many different genres that I feel like there should be at least one of her books that you’d enjoy, if you could find the right one. The Heart Goes Last was a particularly poor recent showing, and I’m not a fan of the dystopian trilogy. Alias Grace or Hag-Seed for something different? But of course, if you can’t be bothered, that’s fine too!

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  2. I feel as though Margaret Atwood was maybe better in the beginning than she is now; not unlike margaret21, above, I’ve had a hard time caring about nearly everything Atwood’s written after Oryx and Crake (or maybe even The Blind Assassin, from 2000). But earlier stuff has grabbed me – TBA, Alias Grace, The Handmaid’s Tale – and I’d like to read even further back into her catalogue. If the pattern continues, maybe Surfacing and The Edible Woman will be the greatest hits yet!

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    1. Surfacing was a definite highlight for me. But I also really love Hag-Seed, the best of the Hogarth Shakespeare updates. With The Blind Assassin, they’re my top Atwood books so far, but I still have plenty to discover!

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  3. I definitely prefer Margaret Atwood’s earlier writings. I felt more connection to the “Canadianess” (if that’s a word) of the characters and the landscape. She has always been one my favourite Canadian authors. Like, Elle, I have had trouble connecting to her work since Oryx and Crake. I read most of her work as a young woman, I think it would be interesting to revisit her earlier writings now as a more, dare I say, mature woman!

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    1. Surfacing felt the most Canadian of any of her books I’ve read (bar some of the poetry I encountered in the volume Eating Fire).

      I’m sort of disappointed to see that she’s currently writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale; I don’t generally care for sequels and would prefer fresh work.

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  4. You’re quite right about me being put off Atwood by The Edible Woman but I did sneak in reading The Handmaid’s Tale and listening to an abridged version of Alias Grace and didn’t die. Nothing else though, although Naomi posted about her children’s books and I thought I might try them.

    Just so I’m not so out of step. 🙂

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    1. Oh, ok, I didn’t get the whole story from your comment on Naomi’s blog 🙂 I’ll correct the scenario above. If The Edible Woman had been my first Atwood, I’m not so sure I would have kept reading her! I’ve never been that fussed about Handmaid’s either. But I feel like there have been so many different incarnations of Atwood over the years that even someone who doesn’t like one of her eras or genres could like a different subset of her work.

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  5. These are two of the books I read so long ago I can barely remember them. If I remember correctly, I think I liked Edible Woman better than Surfacing, but really think I was too young to appreciate either of them. They are on my list for a re-read!
    I agree – MA has written so many different types of stories/poetry/essays, I feel as though there must be something out there for everyone. It’s just a matter of finding it.

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  6. What a great pair to read for #MARM (thanks for promoting it, here and on Twitter too), even if you didn’t realize they were the actual first two and ended up out of order with them! I know what you mean about being surprised with the laugh-out-loud-ness of her work. I reread “The Penelopiad”, the drama based on her book, and could not believe (especially given how tragic some of that story is) how FUNNY parts of it are too. Jaw-droppingly funny. *shakes head* That amazes me. Anyway, I’ve reread each of them just once (and that was more than a decade ago) but I know they are worth revisiting and I agree that she has written too much and too diversely for someone to not connect with any of her work, but obviously not everyone is motivated to explore for a match either – always plenty to read in a reader’s stack, as we well know! (Also, although it’s more acceptable in some circles, I still get cranky comments about wanting to meet “friends” at veggie/vegan places, so that comment could have been pulled from my day-to-day, although Juice Bar, not Health Bar now. I think Europe has been more accepting of veggies from the start!)

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    1. Of course, when I consider that she wrote The Edible Woman at 24, I have to have great respect for her talent! (She even begs the reader to excuse her youthful “self-indulgent grotesqueries” in the short introduction to my Virago edition.)

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  7. Great thoughts here. I just wrote up my post about The Edible Woman that I will post tonight. I enjoyed it more than you but it’s not one of my favorites of hers. Some of it is terribly dated, but it’s an interesting glimpse of what conventional society was probably like then. There were so many funny, wacky bits of dialogue and quirky scenes. I got frustrated with Marian at times, her inability to really define what she wanted. But I was always interested.

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  8. It is so long since I read either of these novels that it is lovely to be reminded of them. I do seem to remember that dream like feeling in Surfacing, and I think I probably found The Edible Woman rather odd. I do feel as if I will have to re-read all my Atwood novels at some point.

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