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Book Review: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood (Bottom of the TBR Pile Challenge)

A bowl of fruit on a black background. A purple stripe across the bottom contains the book's title written in white.Summary:
It’s the 1960s in Canada, and Marian McAlpin is working writing and analyzing surveys for a marketing research firm.  She has a feminist roommate she doesn’t quite understand, and hangs out with the three office virgins for lunch.  Her boyfriend is comfortable and familiar. When he proposes to her, the office virgins think she’s hit the jackpot, her roommate questions why she’s following the norm, and her married and very pregnant friend seems hesitant about her fiancee.  None of this really bothers Marian, though.  What does bother her is that, ever since her engagement, there are more and more things she simply can’t eat.  First meat then eggs then even vegetables! She thinks of herself causing them suffering, and she just can’t stomach them.  What will happen to her if there’s eventually nothing left for her to eat?

Review:
I’m a fan of a few Margaret Atwood books, and the concept of this book intrigued me.  Since I run the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge, I was also wondering if this might actually be a new take on anorexia.  Unfortunately, Marian is not really anorexic, it’s more of an elaborate, overdone metaphor.  Perhaps the plot is simply dated, but the interesting concept, when fleshed-out, comes out rather ho-hum.

The novel is divided into three parts, with Marian using first-person narration for the first and third parts, with third person narration taking over for the second.  This is meant to demonstrate how Marian is losing herself and not feeling her own identity.  It’s an interesting writing device, and one of the things I enjoyed more in the book.  It certainly is jarring to suddenly go from first to third person when talking about the main character, and it sets the tone quite well.

It’s impossible to read this book and not feel the 1960s in it.  Marian is in a culture where women work but only until marriage, where women attending college is still seen as a waste by some, and where there is a small counter-cultural movement that seems odd to the mainstream characters and feels a bit like a caricature to the modern reader.  However, the fact that Marian feels so trapped in her engagement, which could certainly still be the case in the 1960s, doesn’t ring as true, given the people surrounding Marian.  Her roommate is counter-cultural, her three office friends claim to want a man but clearly aren’t afraid of aging alone and won’t settle.  Her married friend shares household and child rearing with her husband, at least 50/50.  It’s hard to empathize with Marian, when it seems that her trap is all of her own making in her own mind.  She kind of careens around like aimless, violent, driftwood, refusing to take any agency for herself, her situation, or how she lets her fiancee treat her.  It’s all puzzling and difficult to relate to.

The Marian-cannot-eat-plot is definitely not developed as anorexia.  Marian at first stops eating certain meats because she empathizes with the animals the meat came from.  As a vegetarian, I had trouble seeing this as a real problem and fully understood where Marian was coming from.  Eventually, she starts to perceive herself as causing pain when eating a dead plant, bread, etc… The book presents both empathizing with animals and plants as equally pathologic, which is certainly not true.  Marian’s affliction actually reminded me a bit of orthorexia nervosa (becoming unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating, source) but the book itself presents eliminating any food from your diet as pathologic.  Either Marian eats like everyone else or she is going off the deep-end.  There is no moderate in-between.

What the Marian-cannot-eat-plot is actually used for is as a metaphor for how Marian’s fiancee (or her relationship with him) is supposedly consuming her.  The more entwined with her fiancee she becomes in society’s eyes, the closer the wedding comes, the less Marian is able to consume, because she herself is being consumed.  This would be quite eloquent if Marian’s fiancee or her relationship with him was actually harmful or consuming, but it certainly does not come across that way in what we see of it in the book.

Marian presents herself to her boyfriend then fiancee as a mainstream person, and he treats her that way.  He does one thing that’s kind of off-the-rocker (crashes his car into a hedge) but so does she on the same night (runs away in the middle of dinner, across people’s backyards, for no apparent reason and hides under a bed while having drinks with three other people at a friend’s house).  The only thing that he does that could possibly be read as a bit cruel is when she dresses up for a party he states that he wishes she would dress that way more often.  It’s not a partner’s place to tell the other how they should dress, but it’s also ok to express when you like something your partner is wearing.  Personally I thought the fiancee really meant the latter but just struggled with appropriately expressing it, and Marian herself never expresses any wants or desires directly to him on how they interact, what they wear, what they eat, how they decorate, etc…, so how could he possibly know?  In addition to never expressing herself to her fiancee, Marian also cheats on him, so how exactly the fiancee ends up the one being demonized in the conclusion of the book is a bit beyond me.  He’s bad because he wanted to marry her? Okay…… The whole thing reads as a bit heavy-handed second-wave feminism to me, honestly.  Marriage seems to be presented in the book as something that consumes women, no matter if they choose it or are forced into it by society.  It is not presented as a valid choice if a woman is able, within her society and culture, to make her own choices.

In spite of these plot and character issues, the book is still an engaging read with an interesting writing style.  I was caught up in the story, even if I didn’t really like the ideas within it.

Overall, this is a well-written book with some interesting narrative voice choices that did not age well.  It is definitely a work of the 1960s with some second-wave feminism ideas that might not sit well with modern readers.  Recommended to those interested in in a literary take on second-wave feminism’s perception of marriage.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Book Review: Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Blue cover with four diplomas on it.  The cover contains the title and author's name in purple.Summary:
Celia, Bree, Sally, and April wound up on the same small hall their first year at Smith College.  Celia is from a traditional Irish Catholic Massachusetts family, although she doesn’t consider herself to be Catholic.  Bree arrives at college from the south with an engagement ring on her hand.  Sally arrives full of mourning and despair over the recent loss of her mother to breast cancer, and April arrives as the only work-study student on their floor.  Paying her own way through school and with a whole slew of issues and causes to fight for.  Their friendship is traced from the first weeks at Smith through their late 20s.

Review:
I picked this book up because it was compared favorably to Mary McCarthy’s The Group (review), calling it a modern version of that story telling the tale of a group of friends from a women’s college.  It certainly revisits the concept, however, The Group was actually more progressive both in its writing and presentation of the issues.  Commencement is a fun piece of chick lit but it misses the mark in offering any real insight or commentary on the world through the eyes of four women.

What the book does well is evoking the feeling of both being in undergrad and the years immediately after graduation.  Sullivan tells the story non-linearly, having the women getting back together for a wedding a few years after college.  This lets them reminisce to early years of college and also present current life situations and hopes for the future.  After the wedding, the story moves forward to cover the next year.  The plot structure was good and kept the story moving at a good pace.  It feels homey and familiar to read a book about four women going through the early stages of adulthood.  It was hard to put down, and the storytelling and dialogue, particularly for the first half of the book, read like a fun beach read.  However, there are a few issues that prevent the book from being the intelligent women’s literature it set out to be.

First, given that the premise of the book is that four very different women become unlikely friends thanks to being on the same hall of a progressive women’s college, the group of women isn’t actually that diverse.  They are all white, three of the four are from wealthy or upper-middle-class backgrounds (only one must take out loans and work to pay for school), none are differently abled (no physical disabilities or mental illnesses), and not a single one is a happy GLBTQ person.  Given that The Group (published in 1963) managed to have an out (eventually) lesbian, a happy plus-sized woman, and a socialist, one would expect a drastic increase in diversity in a book considered to be an update on a similar idea.  Women’s colleges in the 1930s when The Group is set were extremely white and abled, but the same cannot be said for them now.  Creating a group of women so similar to each other that at least two of them periodically blur together when reading the book is a let-down to the modern reader.

The book has a real GLBTQ problem.  One of the characters has two relationships.  One is with a man and one with a woman.  She is happy in both and attracted to both.  She takes issue with being called a lesbian, since she states she definitely fantasizes about men and enjoys thinking about them as well.  Yet, in spite of the character clearly having both physical and romantic attractions to both men and women, the word bisexual is not used once in the entire book.  The character herself never ventures to think she might be bi, and no one else suggests it to her.  She struggles with “being a lesbian” and “being out as a lesbian” because she doesn’t think she is a lesbian.  The other characters either say she’s in denial in the closet due to homophobia or that she really is straight and she needs to leave her girlfriend.  It is clear reading the book that the character struggles with having the label of lesbian forced upon her when she is clearly actually bisexual.  This is why she is uncomfortable with the label.  But this huge GLBTQ issue is never properly addressed, swept under the rug under the idea that she’s “really a lesbian” and is just suffering from internalized homophobia.  The bi erasure in this book is huge and feels purposeful since the character’s bisexual feelings are routinely discussed but the option of being non-monosexual never is.  It’s disappointing in a book that is supposed to be progressive and talking about modern young women’s issues to have the opportunity to discuss the issues of being bisexual and instead have the character’s bisexuality erased.

The second half of the book makes some really odd plot choices, showing a highly abusive relationship between one of the characters and her boss.  It probably is meant to show the clash between second and third wave feminism, but it feels awkward and a bit unrealistic.  Similarly, the book ends abruptly, leaving the reader hanging and wondering what is going to happen to these characters and their friendship.  Abrupt endings are good when they are appropriate to the book and mean something, but this ending feels out of place in the book, jarring, and like a disservice to the reader.

Overall, this is a fast-paced book that is a quick, candy-like read.  However, it is held back by having the group of women in the core friendship be too similar.  Opportunities to explore diverse, interesting characters are missed and bisexual erasure is a steady presence in the book.  The ending’s abruptness and lack of closure may disappoint some readers.  Recommended to those looking for a quick beach read who won’t mind a lack of depth or abrupt ending.  For those looking for the stronger, original story of a group of friends from a women’s college, pick up The Group instead.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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