Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood

May 19, 2010 at 12:10 am Leave a comment

…I later found that almost anyone would tell you you were wise if you confessed you had no talent.

This book is too outstanding for a straight review. I’ve tried it, and I get all academic, blathering on about doppelgangers and bildungsromans and other important German-sounding literary terms. While I love that Margaret Atwood is such an exceptional writer that basically all of her novels can stand up to that sort of literary criticism, it makes for rather boring reading.

So, here are five reasons you should read Lady Oracle:

1) It’s classic Atwood, in the style of Cat’s Eye with the intrigue of The Robber Bride. Lady Oracle shares the structure of Cat’s Eye (here’s where the bildungsroman thing came in) and one major scene anticipates that later novel, but in general, Lady Oracle comes to a different conclusion about the nature of identity.

2) The protagonist, Joan, is sympathetic without being pathetic. She’s an extraordinarily interesting and complex character, complete with parental issues and a secret career as a romance novelist. Readers might identify with her childhood struggles, but sympathy and identification are different from pity.

3) The other characters, apart from Joan, are bizzare. Arthur is bipolar; The Royal Porcupine is a little delusional; even the Polish count is strange, with his exotic background and side career as a romance novelist. All of these characters help make Lady Oracle complex and fascinating.

4) Voracious readers will appreciate the intertextuality of the book. Dickens references are abundant, the romance novel is celebrated with tongue firmly in cheek, and certain motifs show up in Atwood’s later works as well. For example, Joan writes her name in sugar water and watches the ants turn it into a living word, much as Amanda creates her photos in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

5) Atwood seems to view food very much as I do, at least in literary terms. As in The Edible Woman, she constantly uses food as a way to reveal or deepen a character’s personality. For example, Paul the Polish diplomat has only two types of food in his cupboards: exotic and foreign items, or boring items like saltines. Paul himself is this exact combination of exotic and mundane.

Food and eating as a means of control is also a main theme. Fat Joan can alter her mother’s mood — literally drive her to drink — just by eating, and her eventual weight loss is a way of gaining control over her inheritance and her future.

– KT

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