Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood
Oh, my. Margaret Atwood is amazing. But we all knew that already, right?
So, Cat’s Eye. As a middle-aged woman, Elaine Risley returns to Toronto, where she grew up, to attend a retrospective of her paintings. Walking through the city, she is flooded with memories from her childhood. Everywhere she goes, she is haunted by three little girls who once called themselves her friends, particularly Cordelia, undisputed leader of the trio.
These “friends” were the first real friends Elaine had beside her brother. She wants desperately to please them, to fit in. So when they begin to engage in a game of “improvement”, by which they relentlessly point out Elaine’s faults and character flaws, driving her to shred the flesh of her fingers, peel the skin from the bottom of her feet, and bite her lips bloody in fits of anxiety, she does not know how to disengage from this damaging relationship, or even that she should. Most of the adults in the story are unaware of what’s happening; the ones that are do nothing to stop the torture.
Dynamics between this group of girls changes as they grow older, but Elaine’s relationships with other girls and women are forever complicated. She can never quite shake the feeling that they’re judging her and that she’s not quite holding up under their weighty expectations. She’s erected a barrier between herself and other women, so that all her interactions with them feel as if they’re happening from a great distance, from which they can never again get close enough to hurt her. Neither her encounters with the feminism of the 60’s and 70’s nor her own experience as mother to two daughters help her to feel less ostracized. She is aware that many of her prejudices against women are irrational, and that though she sometimes enjoys the privilege of being treated like “one of the guys”, the men in her life are as imperfect, as human, as the women.
This story was sometimes challenging for me. As someone who declared herself feminist as a teenager and was lucky enough to establish supportive friendships with like-minded peers, there were times I felt a bit defensive and wanted to say to Elaine: “But it’s not really like that! We’re not judging you. We’re cooperative, not competitive!”
But, alas. All too often, it isn’t true. We’re not all kind. We don’t always have each others’ backs. Some of us really are downright terrible to each other. Reflecting on my own elementary school experience, I can remember similar insidious aggressions taking place amongst the girls in class, asserting their power over those they deem occupy a similar range of social status, assuring the best possible position in the hierarchy they’ve already internalized. I’m sure all of us can remember such “games”, and I’m sure that, from the point of view of a bystander rather than a victim, many of them might have been more traumatizing than we might regularly allow.
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the whole thing is, after all is said and done, realizing that Elaine’s general dislike of women stems from the fact that she does wish to be close to them, to have lasting female friendships: she is just so afraid they will be unreciprocal, and that even if she built up the courage to try and build one, she wouldn’t know how to begin. For in a way, she feels that her entry into girlhood was a disastrous failure. And where to go, how to relate, from there?
Even though I doubt I would quite understand or care much for a person like Elaine in real life, her story felt so true that I felt real empathy. From the moment I started this book, I loved it. I was completley enthralled with Atwood’s style, as I was upon reading The Handmaid’s Tale last year. Every word in every sentence she writes seems so perfectly placed, and yet not at all laborious to read. I became cranky every time I had to put it down. My next Atwood is going to be The Blind Assassin. Hoping, confidently, that the love affair continues unhindered…