Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors. I don’t remember exactly when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, probably in a high school English class, but I remember that reading that book changed my life. It was one of those books that helped me understand something fundamental about what literature can do (use an extreme premise or situation to comment on contemporary political issues). Looking back, I also love the way The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that sits between the two subjects that Atwood writes about best — political dystopia and female friendship.
When I go to used bookstores, I always check the “A” section to see if there are any Atwood books that I haven’t purchased yet. I’m trying to collect them all (book nerd Pokémon?) and I have quite a few, but I tend to dole them out slowly — one or two a year, at most. I like saving them because when I pick one up I know it’s going to be wonderful, and I want the wonderful to last as long as it possibly can.
However, my careful Atwood rationing fell apart over the last month. I read four of her books between the end of August and the end of September, and it was just as amazing as I hoped that it would be.
The Atwood binge started when I decided to take some time to read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood in anticipation of the third book in that trilogy, Maddaddam, which came out in September. The premise of the series is relatively simple, although it takes several books to really flesh out. I’ll just give you the summary of Oryx and Crake to try and avoid some spoilers:
Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey–with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake–through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.
The structure of Oryx and Crake — a structure that gets echoed in all three books of the trilogy — is so great. The book jumps back and forth between the time after the plague and the events leading up to the plague, and you get a very slow reveal of how everything went down. I was completely surprised about how this book turned out and it was wonderful even on a second read. The book is also really disconcerting because so much of what is going on — genetic modifications, environmental destruction, separation of rich and poor in protected compounds — doesn’t seem too far outside the realm of possibility given what is happening in the world today.
The Year of the Flood is one of the rare cases when the a second in a trilogy book is even better than the first. Atwood has called The Year of the Flood a companion to Oryx and Crake — the events take place over the same time period, just in a different place and different characters. In this case, the main characters are Ren (a trapeze dancer at a high-end sex club) and Toby (a manager at a luxury spa with a mysterious past), two women who have connections to Jimmy and Crake and who also survived the plague.
What was remarkable about The Year of the Flood, to me, is the way that Atwood is able to open up the world these stories are set in. The first book is centered entirely on Jimmy’s limited perspective, while the second goes outside the protected compounds and away from scientists to show how their decisions affected people out in the real world. It’s so smart and interesting.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the third book in a trilogy, Maddaddam, brings the two story threads together and expands the story out in several more directions. I won’t say more about it than that, other than that I thought it was a deeply satisfying conclusion to the story that Atwood set up at the beginning of the trilogy, but left enough open to leave the world a little mysterious. I loved it to death and absolutely recommend taking time to read all three books.
My fourth Margaret Atwood book for the month was Cat’s Eye, which I selected for a book club I suggested when a group of high school girlfriends and I got together for a long weekend at a cabin in Wisconsin. Cat’s Eye is, I think, a book along the other spectrum of stories that Atwood writes — explorations of female friendship and issues in feminism:
Cat’s Eye is the story of Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who returns to Toronto, the city of her youth, for a retrospective of her art. Engulfed by vivid images of the past, she reminisces about a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal. Elaine must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a woman–but above all she must seek release from her haunting memories.
While I’m not sure if I liked Cat’s Eye as much as I enjoyed the Maddaddam trilogy — it got a little meandering in the middle and I didn’t find the conclusion entirely satisfying — it was still a remarkable book, and perfect for the situation we read it. Elaine is a flawed and complicated narrator, and it’s interesting to look at how her memories (or lack of memories) affect how we see her and the girls that bullied her as a child. It’s a book about complicated friendships that I loved digging into with some of my oldest friends.
Given how much I’ve enjoyed all of the books in my Margaret Atwood binge, I’m tempted to keep the streak going and read several more of her books before the end of the year. But I also want to keep hording them, just to know that I have more amazing books to read for the first time when I need a literary pick-me-up. I love Margaret Atwood!
Do you have a favorite author you’re deliberately reading slowly? A favorite Atwood book? Share your thoughts in the comments!