Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

Monday, May 16, 2011

Title: Cat's Eye
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: McClelland and Stewart, 1988
Source: Library

Cat's Eye is the story of controversial painter Elaine Risley's relationships with women throughout her life - in particular her friendship with three girls in childhood that continued to influence her painting throughout life. It begins with an aging Elaine preparing to host a retrospective showing of her work at a gallery in her hometown of Toronto, a city she left behind with hundreds of uncomfortable memories. As she walks through the city, she is assaulted by memories of her childhood and young adulthood that are echoed in her artwork.

This was my first Atwood and I must say that she certainly lived up to her reputation. I was stunned by her artfully crafted words and compelling story. When my husband asked me what this book was about, I had to think for a moment, because in a way it isn't about anything, and in a way it is about everything. It follows Elaine throughout her life in an episodic series of events - cutting out magazine houses with her friends, being "punished" by her friends, growing up and meeting new friends, attending college, marriage, motherhood, finding her artistic muse, etc. All of these are potentially interesting events, but under a less skilled writer may have seemed disjointed or rambling. Atwood seamlessly weaves together Elaine's life experiences in a stunning tapestry where seemingly isolated instances tie together. The main thread that runs through Elaine's story is that of Elaine's relationships with women. She feels as if she doesn't understand women, having only a brother, and when Elaine does make her first girl friends, they relentlessly bully her. These early experiences have deep repercussions as Elaine uneasily maneuvers through her college experience, a world where "serious" painters are men, through wifehood and motherhood, in which she isn't sure how much she wants to assume the traditional role of giving up her career, to her artwork itself, which she finds reverberating with images of the different women who have influenced her for good and for bad.

There is so much to say about this book that I could ramble on for paragraphs - the story is rich with meaning and thought-provoking material. While I won't ramble on any more about the plot, I do want to talk about the writing for a minute. Two things stood out especially to me in this book. The first was an interesting point of view technique that Atwood used. I'd never encountered this technique before, and I found it very effective. Elaine always spoke in first person. However, when she was describing her present self, her older, well-known painter self, she used the past tense. When she went back to her memories she used the present tense. I thought this was interesting in that it was a reversal of reality, but in a way it makes sense that the memories are in the present tense - it is as if Elaine is living them again.

I was also hugely impressed with Atwood's eloquence and ability to string together a sentence that combined poignant imagery and metaphors to endow a thought with intense meaning. For example:
We can't ask our mothers. It's hard to imagine them without clothes, to think of them as having bodies at all, under their dresses. There's a great deal they don't say. Between us and them is a gulf, an abyss, that goes down and down. It's filled with wordlessness. They wrap up the garbage in several layers of newspaper and tie it with string, and even so it drips onto the freshly waxed floor. Their clotheslines are strung with underpants, nighties, socks, a display of soiled intimacy, which they have washed and rinsed, plunging their hands into the gray curdled water. They know about toilet brushes, about toilet seats, about germs. The world is dirty, no matter how much they clean, and we know they will not welcome our grubby little questions. So instead a long whisper runs among us, from child to child, gathering horror.
What a perfect rendering of the questions of childhood - the things we are too nervous to ask our mothers that we twist into strange little myths that make us laugh when we are finally given the real answers. I think everyone has experienced the desire to ask those awkward questions, but no one has ever labeled them so vividly.

Cat's Eye is a compelling story, at times fraught with tension despite its meditative pace. I think any reading of this book will raise questions on the nature of femininity and the way women respond to each other, sometimes cattily, other times desiring to rally and protect each other. A reading of this novel is certain to inspire questions and introspection into the female relationships in one's life.

4 stars

Warnings for the sensitive reader: some swearing, some not-explicit bedroom scenes, descriptions of art


  1. I haven't read Atwood yet, but your review persuades me to try out her work. I like the original writing technique and language you mention. Great review!

  2. This was also my first Atwood, and it was assigned reading in high school! I'm so glad you enjoyed it - Great Review!

  3. Hey Lorren! Just wanted to say congrats on passing that century mark! Very exciting!

  4. This sounds a lot like The Robber Bride, which is also focused on the relationships that women have with each other (although in a different sort of plot). I haven't read Cat's Eye, but given the similarity (and how much I looooove Margaret Atwood), I'm sure I would enjoy it.

  5. Lurve Mid-Career Atwood. Haven't read CAT'S EYE, but am a huge ROBBER BRIDE/BLIND ASSASSIN/ and, durr, of course, HANDMAID'S TALE fan.

  6. @Pepca - You definitely should look into some Atwood! I can't wait to read more of her work.

    @Sarah Reads Too Much - I wish I had books this good assigned to me in high school!

    @Ashleigh - Thanks Ash :)

    @Kim - Robber Bride sounds really interesting. I want to get through all of Atwood's work eventually. I certainly recommend this one!

    @booksaremyboyfriends - I haven't read any other Atwood but I'm dying to get into more. I have a copy of Blind Assassin already but I feel like The Handmaid's Tale is the "must-read" so I might do that one first.

  7. Sounds like I need to add this one to the TBR list. I've read The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid's Tale and didn't think I needed more Atwood. Now I'm rethinking that decision!


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