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:
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.