Inner Senshi Book Club

[Inner Senshi Book Club] Round 3 Review: Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

The “Inner Senshi Book Club” is an online book club where five book lovers of different backgrounds and tastes across the world take turns at selecting and hosting a book each month. Individually, we are (in alphabetical order): Aimee, Angel, Meghan, Samantha L, and Samantha R. Together, we present you a whole range of books, complete with our responses to a rotating list of set questions.

A new book is selected on the 15th of each month, and our thoughts are posted roughly four to five weeks later. We hope you can join us in our reading shenanigans! (The book club derives its name from the five soldiers of love and justice from the Japanese manga and anime series, Sailormoon. We are just as kickass, and if all goes to plan, twice as well-read.)

Release Date: January 20, 1988
Publisher: Anchor
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 480
Format: Paperback
Source: Library

Cat’s Eye is the story of Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who returns to Toronto, the city of her youth, for a retrospective of her art. Engulfed by vivid images of the past, she reminisces about a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal. Elaine must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a woman–but above all she must seek release from her haunting memories. Disturbing, hilarious, and compassionate, Cat’s Eye is a breathtaking novel of a woman grappling with the tangled knot of her life.

SPOILERS AHOY.

Samantha L wants you to consider:
How do the structural features (such as narrative mode and genre) shape the meaning of the text? If ineffective, how do you think this could be improved?

I find that Margaret Atwood’s stories always knock me off my feet. Her method of narration is always different, and picking it apart is never easy. I wasn’t comfortable with the structure of the story until I got past the halfway point, which is when I could link up the events of the story in a more linear fashion. That’s not to say I couldn’t understand the story–it just didn’t click emotionally for me until I could figure out the timeline. Atwood’s prose is lyrical and light, but it also felt weighted down by all the things Elaine wasn’t saying, which tied in beautifully to the themes of recollection and perspective. Another interesting thing to consider is the autobiographical nature of Cat’s Eye. Atwood’s childhood shares similarities with Elaine’s, and she makes her residence in Toronto nowadays. She, like Elaine, has witnessed the changes in the city and its populace, and so the text is stronger for the real-life information and view that those experiences provided.

Samantha R is interested in knowing:
Did the book meet your expectations, or were you disappointed? Why or why not?

Before picking up this novel, my experience with Margaret Atwood’s work was limited to her short stories and The Handmaid’s Tale. I certainly had expectations based on what I’d seen of her writing style, and I was gratified to find that Cat’s Eye is just as strong a story. I will say that I don’t think I would have enjoyed this novel if I’d read it a few years ago–I needed the maturity and perspective that the last five years have given me. It’s a difficult novel to read, especially if you had similar experiences, and I was better able to understand Elaine’s thoughts from where I stand now.

Meghan is wondering:
Do you feel the cover reflected the story well? Why or why not?

Looking at the cover startles me every single time. I knew nothing about this novel before Meghan picked it for the book club, and the cover made me think of paranormal themes. And yes, I even had a moment where I thought of Wiseman from Sailormoon R. I don’t think it reflects the tone or themes of the story very well, though I do think that the bridge was a nice (though obvious) touch. Much of the novel is occupied with transitions and changes, and a bridge is a good way to highlight that focus on the cover.

would like myself to think about:
How well does the writing style serve the story? How does it fail to uphold the narrative?

I discussed a little bit of this in my answer to Sammy’s question. The writing style is absolutely gorgeous, though if you aren’t paying full attention, it is easy to get lost. Following Elaine’s memories is not easy, but Atwood’s writing style is both careful and creative. I had to stop on every other page because there were absolute gems of sentences scattered almost carelessly in the text. Atwood is a brilliant writer, with an unparalleled understanding of the nuances of female speech and thought. The uncertainty and fear that all girls feel when they look at their bodies, their faces, their families, their friends–all of those things come, terrifyingly, to life. They remind you of how easy it is to be lost once more, and how much work has gone into patching together an identity as a woman in today’s strange world.

Aimee’ s question for you is:
How well does the setting contribute to the story? (Would a different setting have affected the book significantly?)

The setting is definitely a major part of the story, and it informs the narrator’s life in ways she is still discovering. The time period is also an integral link to the story–Elaine’s childhood marked the beginning of many changes in both the city and the country. Toronto is a crotchety backdrop to Elaine’s adolescence and adulthood, and it was both strange and wonderful to be able to connect to her thoughts about the city. After all, I live in Toronto now, after having lived in six, seven different cities and three countries. At 23, I’m getting to know Toronto the way Elaine had to as a child. Home was a fluid thing, and stability was (and still is) an untouchable dream.  While our lives aren’t very similar, the confusion and anxiousness she feels growing up are so familiar to me that reading about them felt like gathering a safety blanket around my shoulders. I’ve worn them for so long that they are in easy grasp, and they helped me understand Elaine.

This month’s host, Meghan, has a bonus question:

Discuss some of the ways the protagonist’s identity are revealed to the reader. What role does identity and gender play in this novel?

I’ve heard it said that girls are each other’s worst enemies, and I find I cannot disagree. Whether that truth is something that society has led us all to, or if it’s just the natural state of things, that’s a debate for another day. But when you’re a high school girl who’s been choked by a “friend” who is angry about a “secret” that she hasn’t been told?  When you’re forced to spend an hour in the bathroom, washing off spaghetti sauce that was thrown at you by your “best friends?” You grow afraid of the human beings that everyone says you belong with.

Elaine’s experiences with Cordelia were horrifying to me, but I was most affected by what Elaine admits about Cordelia: [they are] “my girl friends, my best friends. They are the only ones I have and I’m terrified of losing them.” The girl who was once confident and safe in her identity has changed into a girl who is fearful and desperate. Even as an adult, she still craves Cordelia’s “blessing,” her perception of herself altered forever by the mean acts of a girl who was probably just as lonely. Girls are expected to love one another, to accept one another, but we are also expected to know where we go wrong. We are the critics, we are the slanderers, and what frightens me most is that we enjoy it. Just look at how Gabby Douglas was lambasted by other African-American women (grown women, at that) for not fixing her hair a certain way at the Olympics. They focused on her appearance more than what she accomplished. Atwood takes that cruelty and draws it out for Elaine, to the point where Elaine makes it a part of herself, something she can’t let go of. I think deep down, all girls have had at least one experience of soul-searing pain that was inflicted on her by other girls, and ultimately, who we become depends on how we deal with that moment in time.

The Final Say: Cat’s Eye is a beautifully composed novel, with language that reaches the heights of beauty in leaps and bounds. But it was not a story that I enjoyed. It might have been easy for me to understand Elaine, but I could not countenance the way she still, continually, ties her identity to Cordelia and what happened in her childhood. Cruelty is not something that can help you grow, until you understand it as cruelty. No matter what Elaine says, the story is still centered on that need for approval and praise. I appreciate Cat’s Eye for its glorious language and brilliant structure, but it was a story that reminded me of all the worst times in my life without offering a reminder of how much better things can and will get. 

Check out the Inner Senshi’s thoughts on their individual posts (to be updated as they are posted):

Meg/Sailor Mercury: Coming soon.

Samantha L/Sailor Moon: Coming soon.

Samantha R/Sailor Mars: Coming soon.

Aimee/Sailor Jupiter: Coming soon.


Feel free to leave a comment or share a link to your own post! See you next month when we discuss Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale.

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