MARM 2019: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

My contribution to Margaret Atwood Reading Month

I can tell you’re admiring my febrility. I know it’s appealing, I practice at it; every woman loves an invalid. But be careful. You might do something destructive: hunger is more basic than love. Florence Nightingale was a cannibal you know.”

ED WOMANFor this year’s Margaret Atwood Reading Month, I reflect on the author’s 1969 debut novel, The Edible Woman.

In her Introduction to my 2009 Virago copy, Atwood reveals she started work on this book in the spring of 1965, when she was a mere 24-years-of-age. It wasn’t her first novel – the first one had been “rejected by all three of the then-existent Canadian publishers for being too gloomy” (a decision, I suspect, they probably came to regret) – but the story apparently developed as a result of her youthful ponderings on the subject of “symbolic cannibalism.”

Many of her early readers deemed it a product of the North American feminist movement but, as Atwood asserts, “there was no women’s movement in sight when [she] was composing the book”, and quite sensibly points out that she wasn’t “gifted with clairvoyance”. She therefore prefers to describe it as “protofeminist”.

Switching between first and third-person narrative, The Edible Woman depicts the gradual disintegration of Marian McAlprin’s amour proper. She is a determinedly conventional young woman (to the point of being dull) with her “abnormally normal” market research job, fashion sense and shared apartment in the city.

All seems as it should until one evening, when out for a meal with Peter her long-standing boyfriend and a couple of acquaintances, she starts behaving in an uncharacteristically erratic manner. Following a discomfiting show of emotion, she attempts to run off into the night (though, her freakish conduct is put down to inebriation), and later, has ‘words’ in the car with her smartly attired, highly successful but obnoxiously condescending beau. The conversation results in her agreeing to marry him and the immediate onset of wedding plans; but from that moment forward, her sane, structured, consumer-oriented world implodes.

Overnight, food becomes unappealing – meat initially but in time everything bar coffee and vitamin supplements. She endows all she eats with human qualities as her body and self rapidly disconnect. Marriage, it seems, is something Marian can’t stomach.

As she slips into a state of paranoid decomposition, her emotional unravelling leaves one feeling disconcerted and off-kilter, not to mention astonished when she becomes embroiled with the needy and unpredictable Duncan, a graduate student in English.

Sumptuously metaphorical, The Edible Woman is insightful, droll and remarkably mature for such a fledgling author. It was original and ground-breaking in its day, not least in its portrayal of an eating disorder in an era before such matters were discussed outside the medical profession. Yet it still feels wholly relevant and contemporary. Margaret Atwood was from the very beginning an astute and accomplished writer of modern-day allegories.

You’re just another substitute for the Laundromat.”


NB Margaret Atwood Reading Month is a literary event hosted by Naomi at Consumed by Ink and Marcie at BuriedInPrint. Throughout the month of November participants read and review Atwood’s work (including her journalism, fiction, poetry and comics), take part in planned events or simply concentrate on a single piece of her writing.


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30 replies

  1. I’ve just worked out that I read this 27 years ago! Yet as I was reading your review, so much of it came back to me – and my memory is terrible. I think it’s because Margaret Atwood’s writing had such a massive impact on me just at that point when I was starting to explore adult literature fully, and think more broadly about what I was reading. You’ve made me keen for a re-read Paula 🙂

  2. Like Madame B, it’s decades since I read this and I can remember so little. You make me want to re-read. I suspect I’ll fail to join in with MARM owing to time pressures and too many other books, but I shall try to pull an Atwood off the shelf sooner or later!

  3. A wonderful review of an accomplished work. When I read the text I found it striking, and I’m so pleased that you are enthusiastic about something which must deserve the status of a modern classic. The only thing I’m unsure about is the question of allegory. When something reads as true as this story, does this slightly undercut its allegorical aspect? Is something so real and well-observed an allegory in the same way that Animal Farm is? It’s just a minor point, but I’m intrigued by your thoughts after thinking about your superb analysis.

  4. This is a book I definitely plan to re-read at some point – I can only just barely remember it, and I’m sure I would get much more out of it now than I did over 20 years ago.
    I always love to hear what Atwood has to say about her books!
    Thanks for joining in, Paula – great review! 🙂

  5. I’m not really a cover person but this one caught my eye.

  6. How those early publishers are likely kicking themselves now (I think two of them still exist) – you’re quite right! I’ve reread this one, but even my reread is more than a decade past now. What I do remember is thinking that the way she described her work was both realistic and sharply funny. And, speaking of funny, that there were far more comic moments than I remembered from my first reading. So pleased that you are MARMing along with us!

    • Oh absolutely, Marcie, there’s plenty of MA’s trademark dark/sly humour. It’s a surprisingly amusing novel.

      Well, I couldn’t not MARM along with you, if only a little – that would have been far too bleak a situation. I so hope you do it again next year when I’m hopefully in full bookish swing! 😊

      • I’m so glad you did and I hope next year is such an easy-breezy year for you that you can read a dozen of her books (okay, that might have to include some poetry). LOL

  7. Such a long time since I read this. Thanks for such a great reminder of it.

  8. Never read it. Sounds like I should.

  9. I really like sound of this. I have not read any Atwood. I just haven’t been interested, but this one is a bit intriguing!

  10. I wonder if Hang Kang who wrote The Vegetarian got her idea from Atwood. Kang’s novella is equally disturbing

  11. This is the first Atwood novel I ever read and it cemented my love for her. As it has for others commenting here, your review reminded me of so much in the book, even though it’s 32 years since I read it.

  12. What a great post, thank you! I think I will have to take part in MARM, I’ve read very little of her work, but always enjoy what I do pick up.

    • Many thanks indeed, Helen. I know Naomi and Marcie would be delighted if you took part in MARM. There’s absolutely no pressure to do more than you feel able – even if you merely fancy joining in one of the conversations. However, it’s MA’s 80th birthday today, so it would be a marvellous time to pick up one of her books. Incidentally, I nipped over to your blog earlier and found it absolutely fascinating. I’ll visit again soon. 😊


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