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.”
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.