In Margaret Atwod’s Lady Oracle, we follow Joan Foster as she grows up and tries to figure out life and relationships. Standard stuff. Joan is overweight as a child, and has a Grade A byotch of a mother, but – never fear – she has a feminist caricature for an aunt, made of body-confidence, self-satisfaction, and sass. Upon the death of said aunt, inspired by the promise of a substantial inheritance if she gets down to a healthy weight, Joan packs up and makes for England to start over. She loses the weight, gets her cash, and hooks up with a series of pretty questionable blokes. This includes a performance artist who goes by the name of ‘Royal Porcupine’. Nuff said.
Joan begins to write in secret – indulgently trashy period romances, or “costume gothics”. Atwood occasionally drops in a few pages of something Joan has written or is working on in order to advance certain themes. I’m not much of a fan of this kind of mise en abyme, but that’s hardly an objective fault in the book’s structure – I just find it a little disruptive. Incidentally, it’s a device Atwood uses in later work; The Blind Assassin goes a step further with a novel-in-a-novel-in-a-novel (oy). When Joan publishes something a little different, a long poem entitled Lady Oracle, it becomes an instant cult classic. Overwhelmed with the sudden exposure and accompanying pressure, Joan fakes her own death, running away to Italy for a fresh start. Again. Girlfriend is running out of leaves to turn over…
If you pulled Margaret Atwood in Top Trumps: Author Edition, her power play would be ‘characters alienated by their surroundings who have to consciously forge their own path: a journey that’s not always easy’. She does a masterful job of describing the childhood and adolescence of an overweight girl with heartbreakingly nuanced attention to detail. As far as I’m concerned, crop the book down to that period and you have yourself a flawless short story. Granted, the point of the book is to see how these formative younger years retain a stranglehold on the thoughts and actions of Joan’s later life, but I did feel that the quality of the writing and flow weakened as the story moved into Joan’s adulthood. The ending is pretty indistinct – we’re with Joan in Italy at the start of her new life, but lots of problems are left unresolved.
Nontheless, Joan remains an interesting, witty protagonist, and Lady Oracle is, overall, a relatable and empathetic read, exploring the causes and consequences of self-discovery. Not too shabby by anybody’s measure.
I’ve finished this and want something similar:
If you want to bounce on to another Atwood, try The Edible Woman. She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb is the go-to recommendation for insights into the state of mind of an overweight young woman. For more adult-oriented feminist themes about choice, love, and the desire to start again, nab Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife next time you’re book shopping.
What do you think?
If you have ever dated anyone with a self-given nickname more preposterous than ‘The Royal Porcupine’, please tell me. It’ll make my day. I’m on Twitter @chessshaw, or you can leave a comment below.
Artwork Credit: “Untitled” [Cindy Sherman] (1981)