Marcie at Buried in Print and Naomi at Consumed By Ink have been doing such a lovely job hosting Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM.) When I heard that they were doing this it was just the prompt I needed to reread her earliest novel, The Edible Woman. I first read it pre-Goodreads, which for me means before 2007. I remembered that the main character had some kind of eating disorder, but that was really I remembered. I’m happy to say that I enjoyed it very much and it was definitely worth the reread.
Published in 1969, this quirky novel centers on Marian, a young working woman who lives in an apartment with her roommate, Ainsley, and dates the handsome and respectable Peter. She has a less than thrilling job at Seymour Surveys, revising questionnaires designed for housewives. Four months in she’s asked to join the pension plan, which shakes her in a big way.
It was a kind of superstitious panic about the fact that I had actually signed my name, had put my signature to a magic document which seemed to bind me to a future so far ahead I couldn’t think about it. Somewhere in front of me a self was waiting, pre-formed, a self who has worked during innumerable years for Seymour Surveys and was now receiving her reward. A pension. I foresaw a bleak room with a plug-in electric heater. Perhaps I would have a hearing aid, like one of my great-aunts who had never married.
Ainsley is trying to deliberately get pregnant, while Marian’s other good friend Clara is deep in the chaos of motherhood with two small children and a baby on the way. When Peter proposes to Marian (after a disastrous evening out with Ainsley and a doozy of a fight) Marian thinks of Peter as the savior rescuing her from a life of drudgery and the dreaded pension.
I was seeing him in a new light: he was changing form in the kitchen, turning from a reckless young bachelor into a rescuer from chaos, a provider of stability. Somewhere in the vaults of Seymour Surveys an invisible hand was wiping away my signature.
Everything starts to change, however, once Marian meets a strange, scholarly young man at the laundromat and then starts experiencing some unusual visions and thoughts whenever she eats a meal. Just as she gets what she thinks she wants, the promise of being a wife and someday a mother, her world starts imploding bit by bit.
This is an unusual novel in that the characters don’t always do what you think they might do. Marian is a frustrating character in that she doesn’t seem to know herself very well, but her journey is interesting to see play out. And of course societal conventions of the time and place (late 1960s Canada – Toronto? It wasn’t clear to me) are sometimes tedious and offensive to this modern reader. But this novel was more entertaining and thought-provoking than anything. It’s neat to see how Atwood got her start. I see the seeds of her witty, subversive writing here. If you’re a fan of her writing and you haven’t yet read this, I think you should add it to your list.
Oh, and on November 18th, Atwood’s birthday (79 years old,) I ate cake! Just a simple piece of store-bought cookies and cream cake from the grocery store, but it was delicious and I enjoyed every bite. May Ms. Atwood celebrate many more happy birthdays.