3 of 5 stars
This is Margaret Atwood’s first novel, published in 1969 but written in the mid 1960s, I believe. It has aspects where it’s very much ahead of its time and also a product of its time, Toronto in the 1960s, with throwback attitudes to the 50s. This is an era where, when a woman marries, she is expected to quit her job, take care of house and home and have babies. This is not an era where single women decide to have a baby out of wedlock but that’s just what one of the characters decides to do.
The main character is Marian who works for a company that does surveys and has a boyfriend/fiance called Peter, a very conventional man. She’s not a dynamic person, low key and passive, just getting through day by day. She and Peter get engaged and it feels like she does it because that’s just what you do. Women get married and have families even if she looks on her friend Clara’s marriage and family with faint horror. Her roommate Ainsley is full of spark and energy and decides she wants a baby but not a husband and manipulates to get what she wants. Unconventional for the time but can she stick to her guns?
Marian, meanwhile, post-engagement, seems to be having some sort of breakdown. She first loses the desire to eat meat but then, slowly, she stops eating altogether. Maybe Marian feels she has no control over her life and decisions are being made for her though not eating doesn’t seem to be a conscious decision. She get more and more detached from what’s going on around her, going through the expected motions, eating less and less, ignoring the science experiments growing in the refrigerator and kitchen sink. She seems to cling to a new friend, Duncan, as a last grasp to reality. He seems to accept her and respect her whereas her fiance, Peter, is sexist, patronizing and arrogant, even by the standards of the 1960s. Marriage can’t be that scary, but maybe a commitment to Peter is. Duncan might be the opposite of Peter but he’s got a few strange habits and ideas, himself. Not particularly the refuge Marian needs, I think. Most of the men in this book are very patronizing to the women in various ways.
The idea of women trying to take some control over their own lives and go against what is expected is a feminist perspective, written when this was not a common point of view. The “Women’s Liberation” movement was still in the future when Atwood wrote this. Women were still tied to convention and tradition and seen to have questionable morals if they veer off the beaten path but tides were turning slowly and Atwood could see it. I don’t know what it would have been like to read this book in 1969. It’s painful to read in this day and age yet I remember those days well. My mother was looked on suspiciously when she decided to go back to work when her children were in school full time.
Would I have disapproved of Marian and Ainsley’s actions then? Would I have taken it as a cautionary tale? I certainly do now, as in, don’t marry someone you don’t truly love, don’t marry someone that treats you like an object and don’t do something just because society expects it of you, do it because it’s what you know is right for you. The book starts in first person point of view, Marian’s, then switches to third person when Marian starts to feel the pressure. The end of the book is back to her first person POV when she finds her feet and her own voice and pulls herself together.