Review, IB Favorites Edition: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

8 January 2012 by 14 Comments

Book: Cat’s Eye

Author: Margaret Atwood

Published: 1988 by McClelland and Stewart, 420 pages

Date Read: Originally, 1993 (with repeated readings afterward)

First Lines: “Time is not a line, but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space, you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light, you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once.”

Genre/Rating: Literary fiction; 5/5 little lost girls sinking under the ice

Bookslut who hearts this book: Amy

Review: There are very few books that completely understand what little girls can do to one another’s psyches. There are plenty of books that try, and there are plenty of books that come close. Cat’s Eye not only nails it, it brings you back there; it throws you right into the action. You live among the girls. You become one of the girls. You bleed and cry and scream with the girls. You long to escape, and yet you long to stay, with each page you turn.

I learned about Atwood my freshman year of college, not as a novelist, but a poet. I fell in love with her after reading this poem, which remains, even after almost a lifetime of studying poetry, one of the most beautiful and unexpected and true poems I’ve ever encountered (and one of the first poems that taught me brevity can be perfection):

You Fit Into Me

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

The summer after my freshman year, bored, constricted after a year of freedom to be back under my parents’ rule, I raided the library and brought home everything I could think of. Although most people know Atwood more for The Handmaid’s Tale – and yes, I love that book as well, as I do everything she writes, I actually did a graduate finale project on The Handmaid’s Tale, so I of course don’t mean to slight it – one of the books I brought home that summer was Cat’s Eye. I spent two solid days glued to the book. I remember audibly saying “YES.” I remember saying “NO.” I remember a wordless, pained exclamation near the end. It was a book about my childhood. It was like Atwood had been watching me, and knew what I’d lived, and understood, and wrote it for me.

Cat’s Eye centers around Elaine, who we see mature from a young girl in World War II-era Canada to a middle-aged woman in the 80s. Elaine’s life has been colored – in some places, scribbled upon, obliterated, wrecked – by her friend Cordelia. When this book was written, we didn’t have the terms “mean girls ” or “frenemies.” Not yet. Atwood pre-dated these terms, and understood them more innately. Cordelia is these things, and yet she’s more. She molds young Elaine into what she wants her to be, then systematically breaks her down, just to build her back up. The book is structured in flashbacks, with adult Elaine, a well-respected artist, one whose life has been forever tinted (pun most definitely intended) by her formative years spent under Cordelia’s cruel wing, remembering Cordelia, from youth to college-age, and how their lives become almost fatally and co-dependently intertwined.

You also get to know the other figures in Elaine’s life: her scientist father; her mother, stronger than she seems at first glance; her brilliant, scattered brother; the other girls in Cordelia’s orbit; and the adults who attempt to save Elaine from Cordelia’s iron grip, all of whom play a larger role in Elaine’s life than she realizes at the time.

Cat’s Eye is a painful read, but a joyous, triumphant one, as well. You bleed for Elaine, especially if you’ve either been through the torture of the million small bloody cruelties girls are capable of, or love someone who has. But there are small triumphs, along the way, that give you hope. And there is beauty. And so much poetry. One of the things that I love about Atwood’s work is that each of her novels reads, to me, like a book-length poem. She can’t keep poetry out of her work. I like to imagine if you met her in person, poetry would float around her in an aura.

It’s a beautiful book, and a painful one, and, most importantly, a true one. It will fit into you like Atwood’s hook into an eye.

14 thoughts on “Review, IB Favorites Edition: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

    • I’ve read everything she’s ever written, and although I love everything, “Cat’s Eye” is my personal favorite. I’m connected to it in a way I’m not as connected to the others. I appreciate her brilliance in everything she does, but this one is one of my favorites, so that’s why it made the IB Favorites edition, rather than any of her other titles.

  1. The Robber Bride is another thoroughly enjoyable Atwood book…in fact, I can’t think of an Atwood book I haven’t loved. Interestingly enough, I only read Cat’s Eye for the first time this past year. I don’t know how I missed it before that, but it is an awesome read. Your review nailed it!

    I have The Year of the Flood waiting on my Kindle…soon!

    • I loved “The Robber Bride,” too – as a matter of fact, one of my friends got Atwood to sign (and personalize! Squee!) a copy of it for me. It’s one of my most treasured possessions!

  2. This sounds fantastic! I’ve never read anything by Atwood (although I did enjoy that poem) and I’m thinking I might have to pick this up.

    • I think you’ll enjoy it! Although, to be fair, you really can’t go wrong with her other work, either. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Robber Bride,” “Oryx & Crake” – any of her books are fantastic. I just love this one beyond all reason.

  3. My first experience with Atwood was The Handmaid’s Tale when I was 13 or 14 years old. I instantly fell in love with her.

    I remember reading Cat’s Eye years later and being instantly transported back to my years in grade school and the shit I was put through by one particular girl. You are so right about this book. I love this one.

    • She really understands just *everything* around how it is to be a little girl, and how their actions can be so cruel and so biting and just envelop your entire world. Her writing is some of the most evocative I’ve ever come across.

  4. Pingback: “I don’t want to be nine years old forever.” | The Diva's Bookshelf

  5. Pingback: Poetry Inspiration: A Mysterious Death – Between the Covers

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