I love Margaret Atwood

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I love Margaret Atwood.  I would say that I was her biggest fan, but I suspect that line of thinking would descend into a childish competition with other rivals to the claim.

In honour of Atwood’s new book, ‘The Heart Goes Last’, I’ve decided to take stock and share my top 5 Atwood novels.  This is a list of personal favourites and the criteria has been simple: which books do I re-read most often.  You’ll see that this has meant a certain wonderful novel has been left off the list because, while I will never dispute it’s genius, I rarely re-read it and it’s certainly not an old friend in way my chosen five truly are.  Also, because I never want to live in a world in which there are no new Atwood novels for me to read,* I’ve started to ration myself when it comes to her recent publications.  I deliberately was late in reading ‘After the Flood’ and still haven’t opened ‘Maddaddam’.  Still, I’m happy with my list for how it stands at this point in 2015 and am looking forward to what the future will bring.  As it happens, I don’t think ‘The Heart Goes Last’ is Atwood’s strongest novel by a considerable margin (my review can be read at Shiny New Books), which makes it all the more important for me to remember how much I love her other work.

*I do not count her ‘to be published in 100 years time’ story for the Future Library in Oslo.  It’s a lovely idea, but not useful for my own reading schedule!

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I read quite a lot of Atwood when I was too young; this is the first book I remember ‘getting’ after reading it at 16.  I love it and rank it with ‘I’m the King of the Castle’ for best literary presentations of bullying.  I don’t have space here to list everything that’s great about this coming of age/looking back on youth novel but highlights include: what it’s like to be a ‘Feminist’ artist, horror magazines from the 1950s and the Toronto Beatnik scene.  ‘The Handmaiden’s Tale’ may be more canonical, but ‘Cat’s Eye’ is a book I return to time and time again.

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I’m a massive fan of historical Romances (Georgette Hayer, anyone?) and so ‘Lady Oracle’ was always going to be a favourite.  Frankly, I’ll re-read it just for the excerpts from the heroine’s novels that are quoted in the larger narrative.  The protagonist is an accidental writer who is torn between the secret pay-by-the-word generic stories she churns out to make a living and her unexpected fame following experiments in automatic writing.  ‘Lady Oracle’ is a joy from start to finish and it also lays out the rules for writing historical romances:

The hero, a handsome, well-bred, slightly balding man, dressed in an immaculately tailored tweed coat, like Sherlock Holmes’s, pursued the heroine, crushing his lips to hers in a hansom cab and rumpling her pelisse.  The villain, equally well-bred and similarly clad, did just about the same thing, except that in addition he thrust his hand inside her fichu…My first effort came back with instructions to the effect that I could not use words like ‘fichu’ … and ‘pelisse’ without explaining what they meant.  I made the necessary revisions and received my first hundred pounds, with a request for more material.’  What’s not to love?

IMG_0307The Robber Bride is a tour de force in storytelling, not least because it has three equal protagonists each of whose story is narrated in a different style.  I rarely re-read the whole book, instead, I’ll re-read Tony’s story (every third section) with it’s academic intelligence and worldly innocence, or Roz’s sections, full of self-depreciating humour and success.  There is also an unknowable mythic ‘evil woman’ at the centre of the novel, but I don’t return to the book for her.  Instead ‘The Robber Bride’ is one of my favourite novels because of how it tells the story of women who live in the shadow of others and who are so fascinating and rich in their own right.

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Alias Grace is another novel that I re-read in sections, maybe I’m in the mood for a young ambitious doctor, maybe I feel like a mystical story of emigration and service, maybe I just want descriptions of quilts.  Alias Grace is based on the true story of a shocking murder but, because it’s Atwood doing history, the complexity of ‘truth’ and ‘knowing’ soon dominate the narrative.  Oh and there are also references to Nancy in ‘Oliver Twist’ and a fantastic seance scene.  It is Margaret Atwood at her very best.

imagesI’m ashamed to say that I was angry with this book when it came out, I really didn’t see why it won the Booker when none of the books above had done so.  Backwards logic, I know, and also flawed because, once I’d calmed down, I realised that what I’d considered the book’s only fault was actually one of it’s greatest strengths.  I’d been angry that, despite the multiple interweaving narratives (life story in the present, life story in the past, novel written in the past and famous in the present) I couldn’t identify the mixture of voices that I loved so much in ‘The Robber Bride.’  Yes, I know, I was an idiot.  Anyway, it’s now on the ‘best of’ list, and it’s also a book I can happily re-read sections of, frankly I’ll read it for the pompous newspaper extracts alone.

These are my top five, hard though it is to narrow things down when every book by her is so wonderful.  What do you think of the list?  What would you add or take away?  I’m sure I can’t be the only person out there who calls themselves Atwood’s biggest fan.

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The much loved Atwood section of my bookshelf.  If the covers are too battered for titles to be easily read, it’s all a sign of love and attention.

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31 Responses to I love Margaret Atwood

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    It’s too long since I’ve ready any Atwood and I really want to pick up one of her books after your wonderful post!

  2. Ruth Ish-Horowicz says:

    Me too!

  3. Loved reading this review. I am a big MA fan but to my chagrin have only read two to date : The Handmaid’s Tale of course and Alias Grace. Loved both, got The Blind Assassin on the Classics Challenge but now you are making me want to read Cat’s Eye or Lady Oracle first??

  4. Lucy says:

    Yay! I love Margaret Atwood, too!
    I read Cat’s Eye when I was about 18 and last year I re-read it (20 years later) and was amazing how much I remembered. Something about that book left a very deep impression on me, and not specifically the bullying, but all of it, from the childhood homes to the her brother and later her work. I love that book!

    The Blind Assassin amazed me in how Atwood successfully executed such a crazy and convoluted idea. It’s almost a piece of insane architecture/engineering, how she gets it all to tie together and work is wonderful.

    • They are both, in my opinion, pretty much perfect novels. I also think the mixture of humour and pathos is spot on in both – and all without the slightest touch of sentimentality.
      I suppose it’s fair to say that my expectations for ‘The Heart Goes Last’ were stupidly high, it’s just that Atwood has never disappointed me before!

  5. Bellezza says:

    I love Margaret Ateood, too. But, only her early works. While The Robber Bride (fantastic cover in your post) is one of my favorite books ever, and Cat’s Eye almost equally so, I actually dislike Oryx and Crake and her later futuristic books. It surprises me that I can love/hate (too strong a word, the later) one author like that. I guess it shows the diversity of her skill. Still, I wish she had kept to her earlier style. Personally.

    p.s. I’m glad you found my blog. It’s nice to meet you.

    • I notice that I haven’t loved her Maddaddam books as much as her early/mid period novels. I do really like Oryx and Crake, but it doesn’t get me in just the same way as the others on the list…

  6. I love her too! I really enjoyed this post. I first read The Handmaid’s Tale at school, and I’ve been a loyal fan ever since. You’re list captures a lot of my favourites – Cat’s Eye is so powerful. Love the Lady Oracle cover – if I come across that edition I’m going to upgrade my copy 🙂

  7. I’ve read most of Margaret Atwood’s novels but just haven’t enjoyed her more recent ones. Maybe I missed something in Oryx and Crake but it just wasn’t for me. Anyway, I don’t remember all the stories and plots so much but remember being captivated with Cat’s Eye and her other novels from this time.

    • ‘Captivated’ certainly is the word for it. I think of Atwood as having three phases (so far) in her writing: the early, short, odd novels; the mid-period, long weighty novels and the more recent literary speculative fiction. As my list shows, I’m most at home with the mid-period, but, frankly, I’ll happily read everything!

  8. Violet says:

    The only Atwood novels I’ve read are The Handmaid’s Tale and The Penelopiad, both of which I liked a lot. I’ve tried to read some of her other books, but they’re not my thing, really. I do admire her though, and I’d like to read more of her poetry.

  9. cocoaugustina says:

    I will admit that I totally missed the Margaret Atwood boat, and not because I don’t think she is beyond talented and her novels are incredibly captivating, but because I haven’t found a time and space to sit down and “get” what I’m reading. My attempts in the past always left me giving up shortly after a few pages in, of no fault of the texts. I hope to change this. I did really enjoy her nonfiction Debt and the corresponding documentary, so I’m on the swan boat behind the giant Atwood boat, churning my little legs away!

    • I was really interested in ‘Dept’ when it came out … then somehow it slipped off my radar. I think part of me was a bit apprehensive about how she wrote non-fiction. It’s good to hear you enjoyed it, maybe I’ll get round to trying out that section of her oeuvre someday

  10. Stefanie says:

    My top 5 Atwoods (in no particular order) are: Surfacing, The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace, MaddAddam, The Year of the Flood. I won’t be reading The Heart Goes Last any time soon. I read the first part of it when it began life as a digital serial novel and did not like it much. I will read it eventually though, but as you say, not her best. I have not read Robber Bride yet. I like having a novel in reserve too 🙂

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