Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Margaret Atwood's debut 1969 novel, The Edible Woman, demonstrates the author's wit, inventiveness and intelligence. It explores issues such as capitalism, gender and sex in a highly entertaining manner.

The Edible Woman is Margaret Atwood’s first novel. In the introduction to the Virago edition she notes that it was written in the mid-sixties, but not published until 1969. Atwood had by this stage made a name for herself as a poet, having published several volumes of her poetry.

The first thing to note, perhaps, is how accomplished Atwood is as a writer by her mid-twenties. Her prose is sharp, witty and sophisticated; her powers of description, choice of metaphors and just general ability to riff on various topics makes her a reader’s best friend. She’s breezy and chatty, but also smart and perceptive.

The story is about a capable young woman, Marian MacAlphin, who’s slowly unravelling. By half way through the novel, you start to see the similarities to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Marian works for a market research company, Seymour Surveys (Atwood also worked as a market researcher). She lives with the quite radical Ainsley Tewce, a bit of a proto-feminist. Marian has a boyfriend, Peter, a pretty straight-laced young man who has proposed marriage to her.

Marian is perceptive and smart, but she doesn’t advertise the fact and basically tries to follow all the social norms of women her age. Mentally she goes along with the idea of marriage, but her body tells her something quite different. When boyfriend Peter relates some gory details of a rabbit hunt to Marian's college friend Len, Marian is shocked to see this other side to her mild mannered boyfriend. Eating a steak at the time, she starts to see it as once being alive and belonging to an animal, a sentient being like herself. She gradually starts to see all food as being alive in some way. This gradually reduces her eating options, until she can't eat anything. We learn later on that, in a metaphorical way, Marian feels that Peter has been eating her all along. She's the one who's had to give up her entire being in order to fit into society's gender stereotype for women.

Much like Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, which was published the following year, The Edible Woman unpacks a lot of interesting ideas but doesn't resolve anything. It explores capitalism, the place of women in society, biology, heterosexual relationships, to name but a few. Despite this, it's hard to pin down exactly what the novel is about.The reader really has to make up their own mind.

The Edible Woman, written forty-five years ago, hasn't dated a bit. The tone, dialogue, situations, everything, still seems so contemporary. Going by this criteria alone, it can probably be considered a classic.

The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood. Published by Virago. ISBN: 9780860681298  RRP: $19.99

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