As we dove into summer I read my first Atwood novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, thereby establishing some ground rules for our relationship. We decided to agree to disagree when it comes to style so that I could continue appreciating her strong motifs and themes. Now as we dip our toes into autumn, I am now one more book into Atwood’s oeuvre, and this truce appears to be holding. If anything, Cat’s Eye is preferable according to my own tastes in style—and I really enjoyed the story too. This is a book that wallows in recounting childhood—much like Never Let Me Go or, more broadly, any John Irving novel. Those types of stories are, almost by definition, easily able to invoke an atmosphere of nostalgia, of loss and regret, of pain and yearning for the happy and sad days of yore. Atwood plays this instrument with all the skill of a virtuoso.
I’m having a difficult time writing this review. Maybe Atwood coated this book in a non-stick polymer: everything I write quickly degenerates into plot summary. The trouble is just that Atwood manages to capture the bizarre mainstays of childhood traumas (including rivalry, peer pressure, and bullying) and develop them so organically that all my attempts at commenting on this just fall flat. We’ve all been there, and while not all of us had experiences similar to Elaine’s—my childhood was, on the whole, rather good and uneventful—we can still identify with what happens to her.
I do love the gradual way Atwood develops Elaine’s relationship with Grace, Carol, and Cordelia. At first the teasing she endures seems to be typical of children, but soon one realizes that it has gone past that: Cordelia, assisted by Grace and Carol, is a bully. Hindsight allows the adult Elaine to acknowledge this, but childhood Elaine, even if she knew subconsciously that Cordelia’s treatment was wrong, refused to stop calling them her “friends”. Even after child-Elaine realizes that Grace’s mother knows the score and refuses to stop it—ostensibly because it’s supposed to “civilize” the heathen child—it isn’t until Elaine has a close brush with hypothermia before she and her mother realize the severity of the situation. But nothing is black and white, and the bully from childhood becomes a companion in high school—albeit one who is not necessarily all that close.
Cat’s Eye takes place in that interesting first-person style where none of the other people feel all that real or even essential to the narrative beyond their roles as characters in the protagonist’s personal drama. Elaine’s father, mother, and even her brother, Stephen, are more like shadows than people. The same goes for her ex-husband, for her first lover, etc. They act and react act; they have lines of dialogue, but there are really only two characters in this book: Elaine herself, and Cordelia.
There are times when the frame story to Elaine’s childhood narrative seems completely unnecessary. It would be impossible to jettison it entirely—after all, that part of the story has some significant discussion of Elaine’s impressions of the fledgling feminist movement, not mention a broader look at authorial intent and artistic interpretation. (I seem to reading rather a lot of books about artists lately.) Nevertheless, the older Elaine is a frustrating protagonist, because she is so very passive. She seems to let everything happen to her. She goes along with her retrospective because she feels it is an honour not likely to be repeated. Although she offers a little resistance to other people’s attempts to fit her into their rigid ideas about middle-age, female artists, I never feel like she actively attempts to define an identity for herself. Maybe that’s why I preferred the childhood sections of the book. There, at least, child-Elaine’s passivity is juxtaposed with the furious ticking clock of her advancing age: as the months fade into years, we can forget that Atwood chooses a very tight focus for her story.
Really, it’s all about her and Cordelia. The more I attempt to parse and encapsulate this book into neat, sentence-length criticisms, the more I realize there is nothing more important than Elaine’s obsession with how their relationship went wrong. She sees Cordelia around every corner, in every face; Cordelia is always present in apostrophe. Losing Cordelia—or perhaps, from Elaine’s perspective, failing her—was an event even more traumatic than the bullying Elaine received from Cordelia when they were children. If their high school friendship was a type of second chance, a way for them to reconnect, then according to Elaine, she let Cordelia down. As a more objective set of eyes, I would say that isn’t the case at all, that Cordelia’s tragic downspin was something Elaine could not have halted by herself. But so it goes: as we grow older, we begin to develop myths about our past, stories based on memories that in turn influence how we think of ourselves. And Elaine, who in the present day seems so isolated and lonely, has put the younger Cordelia on a pedestal, raised her upon a mountain of regret. Oh, the things we would do differently if we could do it over again….
Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye seems a lot more open-ended, less overt in its themes. The two novels are different, then, in how they interact with the reader. Both share that style of Atwood’s that I have decided to tolerate for now. The cover of my edition proclaims Cat’s Eye as a “mesmerizing international bestseller”. I like that choice of word: mesmerizing. There is something tranquil and enchanting about the way Atwood has her narrative unfold, and that, along with how Elaine’s memories influence her sense of self and identity, really kept me interested in the book. This is the perfect sort of book for the dog days of summer, something into which one can immerse oneself and enjoy over the course of a few languid days as the vacation drifts to a close.