Book Review: The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood (1969)

March 17th, 2014 12:05 pm by Kelly Garbato

A Perfectly Atwoodian Anti-Romance

five out of five stars

Ever since her engagement to Peter Wollander, Marian McAlpin has been unable to eat. Not for lack of desire, mind you; rather, her body simply refuses to ingest certain foods under threat of regurgitation. It started with the meats: beef (cows), pork (pigs), poultry (chickens), lambs, and finally seafood (fishes and oysters). Next came eggs, then fruits and vegetables, until even toast and OJ are off-limits. The nearer the date of her wedding, the more ferocious the rebellion brewing in her belly.

By all accounts, her soon-to-be husband is a fine specimen: handsome, educated, well-dressed with impeccable manners, a real up-and-coming lawyer. Any woman should be thrilled with such a catch. So why does Marian find herself drawn to Duncan, a sullen and self-absorbed grad student who professes not to care for her – almost as vociferously as she claims her own disinterest in him?

The Edible Woman is a sort of anti-romance, written in Atwood’s distinctive style. (There’s no shortage of dry humor here.) It’s obvious that Marian and Peter are ill-matched from the start; and when the two become engaged (during an especially alarming fight/flight), their relationship continues to unravel. For Marian, anyway; her fiance couldn’t be more content with the retro arrangement. (The Edible Woman was originally published in 1969, and it shows in the archaic attitudes towards gender roles and marriage. Attitudes that persist today: for example, did you know that 50% of Americans think it should be illegal for a woman to keep her last name after marriage? I guess lesbians are just supposed to swap last names then?)

Peter slowly begins to consume (“destroy,” “assimilate,” what have you) Marian: his friends become her friends, while her besties are left behind (“Peter shouldn’t be expected to adjust to her past; it was the future that mattered.”). His hobbies become her hobbies; his interests, her interests. Though the couple spends more time together, less and less of it is intimate; rather, Peter begins to show her off to others, much like a shiny new bauble he just acquired: “Now that she had been ringed he took pride in displaying her.” He becomes more critical of her appearance, telling her what to wear and how to style her hair for his parties. And once her bosses learn of her engagement, it’s made perfectly clear that Marian is expected to leave her job before the wedding.

Previously a young, independent woman, Marian finds herself floating as if on a tide, increasingly content (or seemingly so) to leave the important decisions up her to man.

Though I don’t have the time (or, frankly, the expertise) to unpack all of the metaphors and symbols found in The Edible Woman, as a vegan I did read it with an eye on the idea of women as food (and, conversely, food as people). As Peter slowly begins to (metaphorically) devour her, Marian loses the ability to (literally) devour others: it’s no coincidence that her anorexia begins with nonhuman animals. This would suggest a developing empathy toward other sentient beings, except Marian’s disordered eating doesn’t stop there: over time, she finds herself unable to consume plant foods as well.

In one especially amusing scene, Marian looks down with horror at the carrot she’s grating for a salad: “She was watching her own hands and the peeler and the curl of crisp orange skin. She became aware of the carrot. It’s a root, she thought, it grows in the ground and sends up leaves. Then they come along and dig it up, maybe it even makes a sound, a scream too low for us to hear, but it doesn’t die right away, it keeps on living, right now it’s still alive…

“She thought she felt it twist in her hands. She dropped it on the table. ‘Oh no,’ she said, almost crying. ‘Not this too!'” (page 194)

Ah, the old screaming plants meme! Amirite, vegans?

(Indeed, it’s telling that the book’s cover art features a seemingly nude woman unceremoniously stuffed into a basket of fruit, instead of displayed, say, inside a package of beef cuts or alongside chicken drumsticks, a la a PETA ad.)

Atwood also continues her irksome trend of classifying fish as not-quite-a-meat – and thus, by extension, not-quite-animals. (She’s currently a pescatarian, though she may not have been when writing The Edible Woman.)

By book’s end, Marian has neither wasted away nor adopted a plant-based diet. In a conclusion that’s as disappointing as it is expected, she forgets those lessons learned and returns to her old habits of consumption. She pridefully boasts to Duncan that she enjoyed steak for lunch. Marian is a consumer again. Yay?

The Edible Woman is interesting in that I found few (if any) of the characters especially likable – and yet I highly enjoyed the story just the same. The ending is a bit silly, perhaps, but perfectly in keeping with the rest of the book. And – spoiler alert! – Marian doesn’t end up with either of the guys. Now there’s a love triangle I can root for.

A strong 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 on Amazon. Atwood could rewrite the Yellow Pages, and I’d happily read it.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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