The Margaret Atwood Project – Lady Oracle

(This post WILL contain spoilers, but I hope you still read the book and this break-down)

Book three. Wow, this is going faster than I thought it would. I have to say, I pleased I started such a venture as I’m not only broadening my reading but am beginning to believe that Margaret Atwood will be one of my top three favourite authors when all is said and done. I have a few (very lofty) goals for when this project comes to an end and I’ve even thought about the next author I will tackle. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, that needn’t be thought about until 2014!

Lady Oracle, a comic tragedy, was first published in 1976 and once again Atwood manages to tackle a plethora of subjects in such a small space. Among them are obesity, bullying, multiple identities and paranoia. Because there is so much to discuss with this novel I thought I’d break it down into headings. However, before we get to that, I’ll break down the plot.

The book follows Joan Foster and opens with a superb paragraph that immediately sets the tone of what’s to come.

I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it. My life had a tendency to spread, get flabby, to scroll and festoon life the frame of a baroque mirror, which came from following the line of least resistance. I wanted my death, by contrast, to be neat and simple, understated, even a little severe, like a Quaker church or the basic black dress with a single strand of pearls…”

We find Joan in Italy after she has faked her own death to escape from her life in Canada. Joan then begins to tell the reader her life story and how she came to be in such a situation. Joan is a writer of Gothic Romance novels (those that would be found in drugstores and supermarkets) and the plot twists through her retelling and also the writing of her latest book. We find that Joan has had a tough life; she is confused about herself and longs to find her true personality beneath the layers she has built herself.

Obesity

Joan describes her early life with her Mother and Father and we find that as a child and teenager she was obese. This caused Joan to be bullied by both the other girls around her and even her mother. The novel constantly revolves around the idea that underneath the weight and excess skin lays a different person. We find that while Joan was younger she grew up very differently to many other girls her age – forced to take diet pills, live under the dream of her mother and aim to become a good Canadian housewife.

This childhood causes Joan to become detached from the idea of love. She believes that her mother doesn’t love her, so why would anyone else. In fact, why should she love herself? Joan drops her defences while trying to be a normal child which is the spark, of course, that creates the later character and the pitfalls she stumbles into.

The idea of Joan becoming obese again constantly nags at her and she dreams of a large woman in a pink leotard in various situations. She is plagued by the embarrassment of her earlier life not because of shame but because of the hurt that came along with it.

Bullying

This is a theme that recurs a lot in Atwood’s work, particularly in Cat’s Eye. Here it takes form in two ways: her mother and her “friends”. There are some truly heartrending moments in the novel and most revolve around when Joan was bullied by those around her. One scene shows how her mother was so shamed by her daughter in a Ballet show that she forced the teacher to pull her from the dance and force her to dress in a ridiculous outfit, despite her daughter’s tears and sadness. Later we see older girls picking on Joan because she has a sensitive demeanour and they tie her to a lamppost with skipping ropes in the hope that a “bad man” will get her.

These are of course traumatic events for her and we watch as they shape who she will become. Atwood has a talent for making the reader see things that aren’t there. We know what effect this will have on Joan, Atwood merely sows the seed and we fill in the blanks from our own knowledge.

Multiple Identity and Paranoia

Atwood reverts to ideas she played with in The Edible Woman as we see Joan take on new personalities. This time it isn’t in such a schizophrenic form, it’s voluntary. As Joan meets new men in her life she is constantly reinventing her past and the building blocks of her life. This is ultimately to hide the obese little girl but also her weaknesses. We see three main romantic relationships for Joan and each is fraught with difficulty and each man reflects a part of her ideal partner. Paul the Polish Count is the hero who wants to sweep her off of her feet, Chuck is the spontaneous and daring one and her husband Arthur is the sensible and mild-mannered one.

How could I be sleeping with this particular man… Surely only true love could justify my lack of taste.”

Each of these men knows a different version of Joan; they all see something very different. Joan has issues with love and she attaches herself to men that don’t love her, or at least, she believes they don’t. She only believes in love when she’s writing (which I’ll come to shortly).

And then we have Joan’s other identity, that of Louisa K Delacourt, the writer inside her. This name was taken from the only positive role model she had – her aunt – who left her $2000 dollars when she died on the condition that Joan lost weight and became healthy. It’s only right, then, that the slim and confident part of Joan takes the form of her Aunt.

This all leads to a constant paranoia in her life and this gives the book a very brooding undertone. Joan never wants her true self to be revealed but yet she wants it more than anything. She is scared to be seen as herself because she’s been taught that who she really is, is an ugly, fat girl with no hope.

Now I wanted to be acknowledged, but I feared it.”

Gothic Romance Fiction

The personality of Louisa Delacourt writes what most would call trashy “housewife” fiction, set in Gothic worlds. Joan begins writing purely for the money but as the novel goes on, we see that she takes solace in the characters within her books. We read sections of her writing throughout Atwood’s story of Joan and usually a fantasy image of Joan can be seen. Within the final third of the book, Joan’s paranoia and fears begin to seep into the world she has created in her latest novel and it’s only then that the reader gets a glimpse of the real Joan Foster.

I wanted to forget the past, but it refused to forget me; it waited for sleep, then cornered me.”

The entire story is one of fear of being ourselves and Atwood tackles it with her usual intelligence and wit. There’s a fair amount of humour littered throughout, but nowhere near the levels of The Edible Woman. Atwood’s stance in Lady Oracle is one of realism with a fantasy slant. She uses a brutal truth, which she later becomes famous for, to tell an emotional story. While I enjoyed the characters and ideas within the book – and even connected a little with Joan – this book didn’t quite pull me in as much as the two preceding novels. It’s not for a lack of quality in the writing. Maragaret Atwood is a joy to read, her words are used with such skill that at times I’m left reeling. Lady Oracle is still a very important book for the message it delivers about self, personality and confidence.

The next book in the Margaret Atwood Project is Dancing Girls, her first collection of short stories. I’m very interested to see how Atwood translates her power and passion for important themes into shorter fiction.

*It’s worth noting that everything above is my own perception of the metaphor and plot, and is of course very basic (I am no expert in any field and am just an everyday reader).*

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