Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
The only experience I've had to this point with Atwood is The Handmaid's Tale, which I absolutely adore. When I read it last year, I couldn't believe how relevant it is to today's political climate, having been written in the 1980s. But, I think that's part of Atwood's considerable talent. Cat's Eye has some of the same elements -- women and relationships, the power people have over others, faith or the lack of faith, and regret over what might have been.
Cat's Eye is the story of Elaine Risley who was born and raised in Toronto in the years following WWII. Elaine is now a moderately successful artist (although she prefers the term painter) living with her second husband, Ben and her two daughters in Vancouver. She returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her work and must face the demons that she has failed to exercise since leaving the city. Through flashbacks, Elaine recalls the challenges she faced as a child. From all appearances, she had a very typical childhood. In one way, the things she describes seem like the sorts of things we all went through as children -- being teased and left out. However, there's something more sinister about the way Elaine is treated by her 'friends' -- Carol, Grace and Cordelia. At one point, she is actually buried in a hole at night by the other girls. On the way home from school one day, she falls through the ice of a creek and almost dies. The other girls run off (I don't think they knew she had fallen in) and tell her mother that she had gotten in trouble and had to stay after school. Thankfully, her mother sees through the girls and goes to look for Elaine. The entire middle portion of the book contains situations such as these. It becomes almost too much for the reader at times. It sounds heartless, but at times I wanted to shout at the adult Elaine to just get over it. It's in the past. We all go through terrible things. But in the next few pages, I would find myself almost at the point of tears. Elaine is very gullible and naive, and her 'friends' take advantage of this. I actually remembered some things that happened to me as a child while reading this book. Oh, nothing quite as horrible, but still it was bad at the time.
I often found myself wondering why Elaine's mother didn't do something. After all, she had to know that Elaine was miserable. Didn't she? But, I don't guess that's fair. Elaine didn't tell her parents anything about what went on among the girls. Again, looking back there are things that happened to me that I never said anything about to my parents, either. Towards the end of the book, Elaine has a conversation with her mom who is now quite elderly and ill. As they're going through things from an old trunk, her mother tells her that she knew 'those girls' were giving her a hard time. She wanted to protect her, but she didn't really know how. Sometimes intervening in situations only make things worse. But, then again she didn't know how far things had often gone.
Elaine loses contact with Carol and Grace when they go to high school, but Cordelia remains a constant in Elaine's life. They consider themselves best friends, though it's not ever a healthy relationship for either of the girls. Elaine begins to see that Cordelia has demons of her own. She lacks the security of a healthy home that Elaine possesses. She also lacks Elaine's considerable intelligence and talent, as well. When Cordelia begins to self-destruct, she reaches out to Elaine. However, Elaine isn't able to help her. She doesn't know how; she doesn't really want to. Not because she's cruel or hates Cordelia. It's just too much for her. Elaine will carry this guilt with her throughout her life.
This book made me glad all over again that I had boys. Girls can be so ruthless and heartless in their treatment of each other. Yes, boys fight, but it's violent, quick, and then it's over. They're friends again. They don't hold secret grudges. They don't talk about each other behind their backs. They sometimes perpetrate superficial physical wounds, but girls often inflict emotional wounds that last a lifetime, which is certainly the case with Elaine Risley.