Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

When I revealed Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood as one of my October picks, I questioned if this would be a supernatural book. Look at the cover:

cat's eye

Early on, readers learn the narrator, Elaine, is a painter. At the end of the book, one of her paintings is described. . . and it’s the cover. Surprise! No supernatural elements, folks.

Cat’s Eye is about Elaine’s life as a girl of 9 during World War II, then some bits from high school, then a little here and there about painting school and getting pregnant by another artist. Interspersed throughout are short passages about present-day Elaine, who has returned to Toronto for the opening of her retrospective (basically, looking at the work of an artist over her life). Much like She Drove Without Stopping by Jaimy Gordon, I couldn’t find a plot arc in Atwood’s novel.

There were parts of the plot that affected me deeply. Elaine is an odd girl because her father is an entomologist and her mother’s a bit of a hippy already in the 1940s. The family moves around (at first I thought they were homeless drifters) and eventually settle in a house in Toronto where Elaine’s father teaches at the local college. She makes three new friends, all of whom start to harass and torture Elaine, almost accidentally killing Elaine in one scene and lying to Elaine’s mother about it. If mom intuition hadn’t kicked in, the book would have been a lot shorter! The way they tortured Elaine — spying on her, criticizing her clothes and walk and posture and studies and the depth of her faith — gave me a stomach ache. It punches the reader right in the ANXIETY button.

But one day, Elaine decides she doesn’t need them anymore, so they have no power over her. Was her transformation not going to be a climax in the story? The plot drifts through high school, where Elaine becomes a bit of a sassy mouth herself, then to college and motherhood and a move to Vancouver (over 2,700 miles away). Honestly, I’m not sure if I’m giving you spoilers because the plot has no direction, so can there really be surprises?

The present-day Elaine, a middle-aged woman, is depressing because she’s inappropriate. When she meets the owner of the art gallery, Elaine is wearing a jogging suit (though she doesn’t jog). When no one takes her seriously, she blames it on how things have changed so dramatically since her girlhood. Toronto itself is out to get her! She must return to Vancouver ASAP!

I thought the ending might bring it all together, I really did, which is why I kept reading this monster tome — 462 pages with almost no dialogue. There were excellent elements: the cat’s eye marble she saves as a girl, the bullying, the painting, the knowledge that mothers can’t always help their daughters, the entomology, female friendships among middle-age women, Elaine’s brother’s theories about multiple time streams happening at the same time. But no. It’s just a table covered in puzzle pieces and someone lost the box with the picture, so it’s impossible to put together into a cohesive image.

If you want to get into Atwood, I’d recommend The MaddAddam trilogy, or at least the first book, Oryx & Crake.

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55 comments

  1. I read this about 20 years ago now, and I can’t remember it at all. Not even after reading your review. Weird. I don’t know if that says something about the book, or about me. Probably both. I’ve always assumed I was too young to really get it back then, so I plan to re-read it sometime – I know lots of people love it.
    As ever, I love your honesty and fairness in pointing out all the parts you did like, and hope you have better luck with your next Atwood. Maybe you’d like another one of her dystopias? Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale?
    I love your jigsaw puzzle analogy!

    Just yesterday I was reading a part about childhood bullying – it was really such a short part in the book – but it was hard to read.

  2. I’ve only read “The Handmaid’s Tale” and quite liked it. This one I might give a miss ’cause such dilly-dallying plot is not my cup of tea. The premise of “Oryx & Crake” does sound intriguing.

  3. I’m sorry you didn’t get more into this, although I do understand why. Your jigsaw puzzle comment really put it into perspective for me, so thanks for that. I’d like to echo the suggestion of The Handmaid’s Tale to get another look at Atwood’s writing.

  4. I love this book, but I honestly couldn’t tell you why. Except that I just love Atwood’s writing. She’s so damn smart and insightful, and she does human relationships so well. Alias Grace is also a favorite of mine. I’ve read WIlderness Tips but it was ages ago and I gave it three stars on Goodreads.

  5. I would think the story would be worth it, from Atwood at the least. This sounds like a very mixed up book. I think I will pass.

  6. Plotless books are so annoying – what is the point of them?? I’m pretty sure I enjoyed Alias Grace though I don’t remember much about it. And it clearly didn’t inspire me to seek out more of her stuff. Other than that I’ve only read some of her short stories, to which I had a mixed reaction. I hope you enjoy your next attempt at her more…

  7. I read this book years ago, and I remember finding the childhood and the bullying really disturbing, but the rest of the story did seem to wander. It would be interesting to reread today and see what I think – although Atwood has so many other books worth reading!

    • She’s in her 80s and still writing. I agree; I would keep reading her other books instead of rereading this one. I’m just bummed that I’ve read two books recently that are both long and meandering. It’s putting a hitch in my blogging schedule.

  8. Maybe the timing just wasn’t right? Or maybe it was the book before that increased your frustration with a long story? Or maybe it’s simply not a good fit for you? I’ve read this one a couple of times and consider it one of my favourites – for the careful detailing and interconnections (but also because I could relate to the bullying scenes so readily). I seem to remember that one source of the layering was with the art created in the present and the way it reflected details from earlier scenes, but I’m afraid I can’t be more help as I’ve read about a thousand books since I last reread it! The only thing I remember now, in this moment, is the comparison made between wild and domesticated turkeys and how the wild ones can actually fly but the domesticated ones farmed for their meat have forgotten that, and she observes “I am eating lost flight” or something like that. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this one more and I think it’s interesting that you enjoyed the speculative volumes so much more because often people seem to divide on those (I love them too)!

    • I just couldn’t get a feel for an arc. I don’t feel like the previous book that I didn’t enjoy tainted this read, more like I’m surprised that two such books entered my domain so close together. I do remember the comment about the turkey and thought it was great. There are lots of great moments in this book, in fact. However, I really just couldn’t get a feel for where the arc of this story was. Some parts are really lengthy, like when she is 9, and i like those better. And then other parts are breezed through, like high school. I just wanted to sense where it was all going so I could figure out what my emotions were supposed to be.

      • Interesting. I think this might be more a reflection of the character and her story, of the author allowing the structure of the novel to reflect the character and her experience, rather than insisting on a structure and then forcing a character into it. Which would also fit with some of the comments that others have made here about not connection with the narrator in Handmaid’s. (Being that she lives in an incredibly disorienting time and place.) I think, when the characters are unsettled, this is reflected in Atwood’s writing, and this is not a character with an arc, so much as a character who still feels the reverberations of the past in her present. I don’t think she is arc-ing through life; I think she is creating some other kind of shape. For me, the parts about her childhood were the most vibrant too, but I think that says more about me than it says about the story.

        There is a biography by Rosemary Sullivan about Atwood’s early years, called The Red Shoes. I remember finding it a bit disappointing because it ends too soon, but I like the way that Sullivan writes biography, heavy on the narrative and quite an engaging style.

        • You make some interesting points, especially about reverberations and reflections. What you’re describing almost sounds like a story more true to life. We hang on to things in the past because of how they shape us as adults. However, I’m a firm believer in fiction can’t reflect reality in the truest form because we have expectations as readers. Something odd may have happened in real life, but readers won’t buy it in fiction, for example. I think I would have liked Cat’s Eye much more if we went between childhood and adult Elaine, but also learned how she flipped the switch from being picked on to deciding it was enough.

          • Readers’ expectations are so key, I agree. It’s something that I also find interesting when it comes to reading more translated fiction, which I don’t do very often, not as often as I intend to, at least. There, I nearly always feel as though I am travelling via some other kind of shape, not the arc I’m accustomed to. Often at the end, I have to reread large sections of the story, have to resituate myself completely. It’s often quite disorienting. And, then again, or then too, I wonder, what do readers who always/only/regularly read experimental fiction expect? *shakes head, laughing at self* No wonder there is little time left over for non-fiction! 🙂

  9. One of my book blogger confessions is that I have yet to read an Atwood novel that I like. I wasn’t sold on The Handmaid’s Tale, and I couldn’t even finish The Robber Bride. I think I will give this one a miss too, though I will maybe pick up Oryx & Crake as I’ve heard only good things about it.

  10. Oh it’s a shame this one wasn’t more appealing-I honestly can’t remember if I read it or not, but I find Atwood’s writing is sometimes all over the place, so no surprises in your review for sure. Oh well!

  11. I’ve read some Atwood – though not this one – The Handmaid’sTale and The Blind Assassin that I can remember, and I should read more. I think that for a ‘mainstream’ author she is quite experimental and I like that about her, though as you have discovered, it can make her hard to read.

    • See, I like her novels with the otherworldly stuff in it better, such as Oryx & Crake, which uses fictional science (and thus it is science fiction) rather than Cat’s Eye, which was very….wandering.

  12. Sigh. It’s a shame that this book didn’t work out for you. I get so frustrated with books like this. I want some sort of arc! Plot, character, relationship, whatever! Just give me something to invest in and see through! I’ve read a few books like this in my day and your analogy about a puzzle with no lid to help people identify the big picture is on point.

    Atwood is so prolific. This is an older publication of Atwood’s, but not so old that she wasn’t well-known and thoroughly published. Perhaps this suffered from the lack of a strong editor? I am not well-read in Atwood, so it’s hard to compare to her other works. But, from what I know of her writing, this feels like an anomaly. What do you think?

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