So yes. While starting to read through my fiction bookcase, I finished the three Margaret Atwood books that I own. I have now switched to the science fiction & fantasy bookcase for a few books (one Douglas Adams and at least the first of Asimov’s Foundation books). But I noticed something interesting while reading Atwood. I wonder if this is going to happen more often.
I could almost literally see her writing style, her craft, improving and maturing as I went. I should mention that I neither read the books in chronological order nor in alphabetical. Basically, The Robber Bride is a tall hardcover, so it stands flush against the left edge of the bookcase, so the adjacent, lower paperbacks have a consistent flat space upon which I can put other books. (See the photo.) So I read Bride first, followed by The Edible Woman (written earlier in Atwood’s career) and then Alias Grace (written later, in the mid-90s).
I loved The Robber Bride both times I’ve read it. I was sort of chuckling, as I went, how most of the novel is backstory. As you gradually learn the backstory of all three main characters, the plot that’s taking place in the “present” becomes so layered and rich. I love how she develops each of the three women, and how different they are from each other. And I love how they’ve grown by the end. You kind of fear for them at the beginning, but you’re very impressed by the end.
Going from that to The Edible Woman was a surprising experience. It seemed to clear to me that Ms. Atwood’s style and command was still just developing, in this earlier novel, and it was not yet “there.” The ideas are good, but she had learned more subtlety later. Where the underlying ideas were implicit in The Robber Bride, they felt (to me, at least) a bit too obvious and overworked in The Edible Woman.
And interestingly, I could even see how some spelling conventions had changed since the earlier publication. I can’t remember the specifics now, but there might even have been a spelling like “to-day” in there, which was how that word started out. Certainly, some word combinations were hyphenated then that aren’t now. (An example of the sort of thing I mean would be something like “garden-party,” which might have been hyphenated at that time but would no longer be hyphenated now.) So the language fiend in me was fascinated by that.
One thing that was consistent between these first two books was the shift of point of view. In Bride, it was the shift among the three main female characters, both in the present and in their past. That was masterfully done. In Woman, it was a shift between first person and third person, from the same person’s point of view. That, too, was excellent. That shift clearly showed the stages at which the main character was someone exercising a degree of control of her own life (first person) compared to a stage at which she became more of an object whose role was determined by others’ expectations (third person). That was very well done.
There are shifts of point of view in Alias Grace too, the third novel. And reading this one, I just wanted to weep, it was so very well done. This novel was written by someone with full mastery of her craft, in all its subtlety and layering and wordsmithing. I had read the other two novels once before, but this was the first time I read this one. And it was like a crescendo, not just because I could see how skillful and masterful Ms. Atwood was, but also because, you know, I loved the story itself. Everything about this book, at least for me, was wonderfully done.
So that was the first three fiction books. The next author, also with three books that I own, was Jane Austen. And I wasn’t really in the mood for that era of things after Ms. Atwood, which was why I switched to the SF&F bookcase for a bit. But I’d say that Margaret Atwood got this project off to a wonderful start.