The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood
Marian has a problem. A willing member of the consumer society in which she lives, she suddenly finds herself identifying with the things being consumed. She can cope with her tidy-minded fiancé, Peter, who likes shooting rabbits. She can cope with her job in market research, and the antics of her roommate. She can even cope with Duncan, a graduate student who seems to prefer laundromats to women. But not being able to eat is a different matter. Steak was the first to go. Then lamb, pork, and the rest. Next came her incapacity to face an egg. Vegetables were the final straw. But Marian has her reasons, and what happens next provides an unusual solution.
Review: I’ve read almost all of Margaret Atwood’s fiction, but I kept putting this book off because the synopsis sounds . . . weird. Like, what even is this book about? People who kill rabbits, go to the laundromat, and don’t eat? It all sounded unbearably quirky to me.
Turns out, the book is about a lot of things. It’s about consumer culture and the expectations that society has for young people. It’s about mental illness and feeling trapped. It’s about a group of twenty-somethings in 1960s Canada who are too paralyzed by fear to take the next step in their lives.
"The human mind was the last thing to be commercialized but they’re doing a good job of it now" – The Edible Woman
The story centers on Marian, a recent college graduate who has a job doing market research. She’s not happy with her life, but she’s not unhappy, either. Then her boyfriend proposes, and her life starts falling apart. She knows she’s supposed to be happy about getting married, but every time she imagines herself as a housewife and mother, she gets ill. She starts identifying with food and becomes terrified of being consumed. At first it’s only meat and eggs that she can’t swallow, but the closer she gets to her wedding, the smaller her menu becomes.
All of the characters in this story are subconsciously rebelling against society’s expectations. They know that after college, they’re supposed to get married, get a good job, buy a house, have kids. They’re all trying to do what’s expected of them, but none of them actually want what’s expected. As a result, they’re all stuck. Marian is slowly starving to death while dreading her marriage. Marian’s roommate desperately wants children, but she doesn’t want a man in her life. Marian’s friend, Duncan, doesn’t like sex, but he does it because it’s expected of him. This book doesn’t have much of a plot, but it is a fascinating character study about people who reject what society wants for them.
“What a moron I was to think you were sweet and innocent, when it turns out you were actually college-educated the whole time!” – The Edible Woman
I think Marian’s mental illness is handled realistically. Her anxiety makes her throw up if she eats. She knows she’s in trouble, but her problems are dismissed by everyone else. The other characters tell her to “stop acting hysterical,” “don’t drink so much,” “get more sleep.” When Marian leaves a party without telling anyone, her fiancé gets angry because she made him look bad. No one tries to understand what’s going on with her. Everybody just assumes that she’s thrilled about all the changes in her life.
“I know I was alright on Friday when I got up; if anything I was feeling more solid than usual.” – The Edible Woman
The Edible Woman is Margaret Atwood’s first published novel. To me, it reads like a first novel. It’s definitely not my favorite Atwood book. It occasionally felt rambley to me, which got on my nerves because I just wanted it to move on with the plot. It also sometimes felt pretentious, like the author wanted to show how quirky and clever she could be.
The book does contain most of the stuff I love about Atwood’s work. It has brilliant descriptions, lifelike characters, feminist themes, and a sense of humor. Atwood is the queen of word choice. She somehow always finds the perfect word to bring a scene to life for me. It’s like a superpower or something.
“Her metaphors for her children included barnacles encrusting a ship and limpets clinging to a rock.” – The Edible Woman
If you’re new to Margaret Atwood, you probably shouldn’t start with this book. (Start with The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a lot better than this one.) The Edible Woman isn’t Atwood’s best novel, but it’s always interesting to see how authors get their start.