Margaret Atwood, one of literature’s most beloved and prolific authors, is best known for her books such as The Handmaid’s Tale (one of my all-time favorite novels) as well as her nonfiction and poetry and so many other works in various genres.
Not many people seem to know about her first novel, The Edible Woman, published in 1969 but written several years earlier. I certainly didn’t until I spotted this at the library and was immediately intrigued.
Set in the 1960s, Marian is a 20-year-old professional woman living in Toronto. She’s gainfully employed at Seymour Surveys, a market research/advertising firm. Early in the novel, she becomes eligible for being vested with a pension. Her ruminations upon completing the paperwork gives readers who are familiar with Atwood’s work a glimpse into the themes she is brilliantly developing in The Edible Woman.
“Somewhere in front of me a self was waiting, pre-formed, a self who had 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. I would talk to myself; children would throw snow balls at me. I told myself not to be silly, the world would probably blow up between now and then; I reminded myself I could walk out of there the next day and get a different job if I wanted to, but that didn’t help. I thought of my signature going into a file and the file going into a cabinet and the cabinet being shut away in a vault somewhere and locked.” (pg. 15)
There’s so much in just this one paragraph: a self was waiting, pre-formed … perhaps I would have a hearing aid, like one of my great-aunts who had never married … the world would probably blow up between now and then … being shut away in a vault somewhere and locked.
The Edible Woman continues along this path. Atwood’s writing is sharp and purposeful –especially when she cleverly uses food metaphors.
“–my mind was at first as empty as though someone had scooped out the inside of my skull like a cantaloupe and left me only the rind to think with.” (pg. 86)
Food becomes even more dominant when Marian becomes engaged to Peter. What should be a happy time becomes worrisome when, soon after the engagement, Marian gradually begins losing the ability to eat. No one can figure out why. (Clearly, this was in a time before everyone graduated from the Medical School of Google.)
But it doesn’t take a physician or a prescription to know that the real issue eating away at Marian is the fear of being devoured by another person and being consumed, losing her sense of self in the process.
Suffice it to say if The Handmaid’s Tale resonated with you, chances are you will appreciate The Edible Woman for its similar messages of feminism, relationship issues, women in the workforce, male hierarchy — and, yes, for its innovative and timeless way of using food to bring these issues into our consciousness.
The Edible Woman
by Margaret Atwood
1998 (first published in 1969)
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This is post #90 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project.