So, how do you feel about Margaret Atwood? I've never quite been sure. I read The Handmaid's Tale in high school, and I thought I enjoyed it, though I was bewildered and somewhat turned off by the views it had on sex. I thin I was too young to quite get which bits were shocking and which merely disquieting. (For the record--intercourse with your owner while holding his wife's hand--shocking. Prostitution as an escape from this lifestyle--disquieting.)
Anyway, then I read The Robber Bride in college, and I really enjoyed it. I think the guidance of a professor helped--the characters and relationships are never quite tidy in her work, and it's taken me a long time to get comfortable with untidiness in novels. But I knew which characters I liked and didn't like, even while they were being complicated, so that was great.
Then I read Alias Grace. I actually listened to it on tape, and though it was an abridged version, it was excellent. The narrator did a marvellous job moving back and forth between the first and third person parts of the book. I'll admit that my opinion of the book was biased by the narrator; when I read it recently for book club, I found that I was far more sympathetic to Grace than others. The sweet, hypnotic voice, complete with Irish lilt, that the narrator had put on for Grace's first person sections had convinced me of her innocence more than anything--I couldn't argue when others brought up doubts inherent in her story. But I couldn't buy them, either.
So, we're 3 for 3 at the time of reading, maybe more like 2 out of 3 in retrospect--I don't think I'd enjoy rereading The Handmaid's Tale. So why do I think of her as a writer I'm not sure of?
Well, there are her stories. I've officially decided that liking someone's novels is no indicator of whether I'm going to like their stories, and vice versa. (Barbara Kingsolver is another example of this.) I tried to read Wilderness Tips, and though I couldn't name anything wrong with it, I didn't enjoy it and didn't finish it. I know the one about the cyst in the candy box just kicked me right over the edge.
Then there's The Blind Assassin. You can't even say I didn't like that, because I didn't make it past page five. It's far too conceptual for me--the story within a story within a story, and I'm pretty sure, that's all within a story and told through newspaper clippings. It's just too much, trying too hard, too proud of itself. I really do intend to try someday, but I would not be terribly surprised or disappointed if that day never came.
So why do I doubt her? I just read Lady Oracle, expecting it to be something I wouldn't enjoy or want to read. And in truth, there were tough moments. The narrator had some opinions that I had trouble separating from those of the author for a while. But the story was solid, good, grounded, which is not really what I would have expected from her. And I'm not sure why--the ones I've liked have had very grounded stories--Alias Grace, The Robber Bride, both well plotted, though I think of her writing as being thick with symbolism, literary flourish, words that don't do much.
It's not. Lady Oracle was really good. I wish I had gone into it with a better attitude. I have to admit, I'm really only beginning to appreciate and understand stories that are full of messiness, emotionally sloppy characters. The metaphor in my head is of people whose emotional furniture is straight out of the early 70s--avocado appliances that don't work very well, nubby brown couches and orange shag carpets. And maybe they have ants. These people make the most interesting characters, most of the time, but I've only recently come to terms with them. So I guess now I can call myself a Margaret Atwood fan.