I’ve heard such good things about Atwood for years, but never managed to get around to reading one of her novels. I mostly do my reviews on Goodreads these days, but this being one of the best novels I’ve read this year made me want to devote a blog post to it.
Cat’s Eye uses a non-traditional narrative structure which suits the novel perfectly. It does one chapter of “present” time and three or four chapters of “past” time between (I never counted to see if this was consistent). The whole thing is in present-tense though. The effect is powerful. The disproportional pacing allows Elaine’s (the main character) entire life to play out and catch up to the story.
The childhood scenes are done particularly well. Atwood focuses on the harshness and cruelty ever-present in childhood relationships. Many other people say she got girl relationships right, but I think everyone will recognize a bit of truth to the situations she portrays. It is a refreshing take on a coming of age story that often idealizes the innocence of youth beyond recognition.
The present story line is about Elaine coming to terms with a gallery doing a retrospective on her art. The interplay between the past and present is fascinating, because it highlights interpretive issues I’ve written a lot about. You get to see the scenes that her paintings are inspired by and the people she painted to appreciate how out-of-touch many people’s interpretations are. It also delves into the psychological issues that arise from other people criticizing your art (maybe Atwood drew upon experience here?).
Some of the most poignant misinterpretations have to do with her work being attached to feminism. Although the main character can probably be considered a feminist, her work was not meant to have much to say about it. She has a mature and complicated understanding of the label, and many of the people writing about her work want simple headline grabbing messages. It rings truer today than back in 1988 when it was published, because you see in these people the early form of click-bait articles that devalue their movement’s message.
It hits upon these complicated and less common themes as well as ones as old as literature itself. These include the value of friendship and solitude; what makes a meaningful life; and the anxiety of getting older. These more universal themes are uncovered with remarkable depth and subtlety, and the answers/questions the book points to might surprise you.
I would highly recommend the novel. I always thought of Atwood as a genre or sci-fi author (not that those can’t be excellent as well; my other favorite book this year so far is Hyperion). This novel is literary fiction at its finest.