Margaret Atwood is one amongst my favourite contemporary authors. I was introduced to her books during my high school years. Aimlessly wandering through the high school library, halting happily whenever a familiar name or an interesting book cover caught my eye, I was immediately drawn to the Blind Assassin albeit by its cover. Definitely one strike against “don’t judge a book by its cover”! I really fell head over heels in love with each and every aspect of the Blind Assassin – the language, the characters and the writing style of “a story within a story”. This was like seeing your favourite dress on discount with your favourite jeans free with it. Inexplicable joy!!! Sadly, I couldn’t get my hands on any of her other books for a long time as our library did not possess a good collection of Atwood’s novels.
Interesting fact: Blind Assassin was my well thought out wedding gift to my husband. All puns intended.
Annoying fact: It is still in mint condition in our book shelf even after three years of marriage.
The experience of reading Lady Oracle was no different, although I suffered bouts of frustration with the behaviour of the heroine. Personally, I am drawn to novels which portray independent, stoic, persistent and successful women protagonists. All these are the qualities which Joan Foster, the leading lady of Lady Oracle, lacks in her life. She does not have any motive and meanders through life, deludes herself with the false hopes of romance just to be disappointed with practical love and spins false identities to satisfy every person in her life. A closet ‘Gothic costume novel’ writer, she seeks romantic gratification in her personal life by penning Gothic costume novels. Unsure of who she really is, the actions Joan takes for her own benefit pushes her further away from happiness and drags her deep into the ugly quagmire of life.
The book is split into five chapters with each one portraying an important phase in Joan’s life. Throughout the book we also get excerpts of the romantic novels which Joan is working on. Most of the characters in these romantic novels have a close resemblance either to Joan or to someone in her life. The main characters in Lady Oracle are Joan’s mother, her Aunt Lou, her husband Arthur, her lovers Paul and the Royal Porcupine. All of them, except her Aunt, have a set of expectations from the protagonist which strictly adhere to the preconceived role of women in the present day society.
Joan’s mother, who is a very cold and unaffection woman, wants her to be a beautiful, intelligent and successful daughter whom she can display with pride to others. Their differences force Joan to vent out her frustrations by over-eating and by using her body as a war zone thereby turning herself into a very obese girl low on self-confidence. Aunt Lou is the only one who sees beyond her obesity and accepts Joan for who she really is. She instils some confidence in Joan and also leaves her sufficient money in her will provided she reduces her weight which helps her to escape from the clutches of her mother and move out of her country.
Joan is introduced to writing romantic novels for a living by Paul, the Polish Count. Joan meets Paul in London and presents herself as a failed art student. Paul takes a liking to her and allows Joan to live with him as his mistress. Paul turns out to be a very bitter and depressed man who is suspicious of Joan’s fidelity. As their life together becomes depressing, Joan runs into the arms of Arthur, her future husband, whom she meets at a park. She transforms herself to whom she thinks Arthur wants her to be, by creating fake stories about her past and concealing the fact that she writes romantic novels.
When Arthur makes a completely impassioned marriage proposal, Joan readily agrees to it even though she is unsure whether Arthur truly loves her or not. Even at this point, Joan refuses to come clean about her past to Arthur. Unhappily married to Arthur, who expects her to be an ideal wife by cooking for him and supporting him in his causes, she experiences the writer’s block. Over a period of time in trying out ‘Automatic Writing’, she comes up with a collection of poems which becomes a massive hit on publication. This further strains their marriage as Arthur is not very happy about his wife’s success. As Joan struggles with her new-found success, she is constantly worried about someone digging up her past and her Gothic novels. She also indulges in an extra-marital affair with a quirky and eccentric artist named Royal Porcupine. What started out as a casual fling soon spirals out of control when Royal Porcupine wants her to leave Arthur.
When all of Joan’s world and identities start colliding with each other and collapsing around her, she takes the ultimate step. She fakes her own death and runs off to Italy to start afresh and to shed all her previous identities that were weighing her down. Seeking freedom from the past, she changes her physical appearance and tries to reinvent herself. All this fails to have the desired effect and she starts missing her troubled past. Will she find happiness in this loneliness or will the past catch up with her?
This book is a must-read for all Margaret Atwood fans. Readers new to Margaret Atwood can also try this book and I am sure you will fall in love with Atwood’s direct, elegant prose and her realistic portrayal of a woman struggling under a pile of expectations. Overall, a great book and a fast paced read!
Favourite quote: “I planned my death carefully, unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it.”
Favourite Character: Chuck the Royal Porcupine