Marian McAlpin is a sensible career girl, not “the other kind” that only dreams of catching a man and marrying him. So when she meets Peter, a handsome up-and-coming lawyer at a party, he quickly asks her out. Several months into their relationship, he loses his last unmarried friend to those scheming wifely types and, in a panic, asks Marian to marry him.
Filled with a postmodernist Thomas Pynchonesque absurdity, The Edible Woman carries the reader along from one hilarious situation to another, as Marian tries to discover why she isn’t happier about finally reaching that apex of female achievement: an engagement. When she describes her triumph to her roommate Ainsley, Ainsley is barely interested because she’s in the middle of tricking Marian’s friend Len into fathering a baby by exploiting his weakness for underage girls. Meanwhile, Marian falls in with a misanthropic English graduate student named Duncan that barely seems to exist of enough substance to stay alive – and it is their relationship, contrasted with the steady but domineering Peter, that forces Marian Into behaviors that she barely understands.
It is small wonder that, as the wedding hurtles ever nearer, Marian’s dissatisfaction begins to manifest physically, as her body begins to reject different types of food. When she is forced into quitting her job, as her boss – a single career woman of intermediate skills and advancing age – doesn’t want young, married women working for her, as potential pregnancies make them too unpredictable, her body joins forces with all the other people taking control of Marian’s life.
That morning her body had finally put its foot down on canned rice pudding, after accepting it with scarcely a tremor for weeks. It ad been such a comfort knowing she could rely on it: it provided bulk, and as Mrs. Withers the dietician had said, it was fortified. But all at once as she had poured the cream over it her eyes had seen it as a collection of small cocoons. Cocoons with miniature living creatures inside.
Although the novel is heavy-handed with symbolism — it is Atwood’s first — the light-hearted touch that Atwood deploys keeps it from feeling like an English class assignment. Written in 1969, The Edible Woman gently satirizes on the beginnings of pop psychology and the emergence of a widespread feminist consciousness, while lodging the modern reader enjoyably in the formality of the late sixties, with its boundary pushing girdle advertisements and long white gloves.
Although the novel is witty, Atwood also delves fearlessly into the complexity and complicty of the power struggles within heterosexual relationships. Before Marian and Peter become engaged, Marian adjusts her behavior to suit his moods, sidelining her own needs to please him. Once they agree to marry, she hands over decision making to him, even down to what she wants to eat, until her body revolts. When Duncan enters the picture, he gives Marian the impetus to choose, while his misanthrophy offers no obvious solutions.
Atwood is an accomplished poet and, by the time she wrote The Edible Woman, she had published three volumes of poetry. Many passages that would be mundane in a lesser author’s hands read like sardonic prose poems. In describing a Western movie that Marian watches, Atwood writes:
The coloured pictures succeeded each other in front of her: gigantic stetsoned men stretched across the screen on their even more gigantic horses, trees and cactus-plants rose in the foreground or faded in the background as the landscape flowed along; smoke and dust and galloping. She didn’t attempt to decide what the cryptic speeches meant or to follow the plot. She knew there must be bad people who were trying to do something evil and good people who were trying to stop them, probably by getting to the money first (as well as Indians who were numerous as buffalo and fair game for everyone), but it didn’t matter to her which of these moral qualities was incarnate in any given figure presented to her. At least it wasn’t one of the new Westerns in which people had psychoses.
There are so many moments in The Edible Woman where Atwood’s prose is distracting from the story, but it is in this way, where the images suddenly strike you as so unusual that you must stop and read the passage again, enjoying the sensations that Atwood presents to you. This is the strength of The Edible Woman, which is a must-read for any student of writing or second-wave feminism. Atwood brings you into it with her wit and her poetry, in a journey that will still feel modern and relevant to any woman.
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publish Date: Originally 1969, republished June 1989
Paperback: 336 pages
Rating: 4 of 5 stars