Margaret Atwood – “Lady Oracle”

14 Aug

GENRE: Contemporary fiction / Literary
PUBLISHED: Virago Press, 2007 (1982)

WHY THIS NOVEL: I bought this back in April because, I think, I somewhere read that this one had something to do with romance novels. Anyway, I read other novels by Atwood and liked them, so …

The back blurb:
” ‘I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it … At first I thought I’d managed it.’

From fat girl to thing, from red hair to mud brown, from London to Toronto, from Polish count to radical husband – Joan Foster is utterly confused by her life of multiple identities. She decides to escape to an Italian hill town to take stock of her life. But first, she must organize her death …”

Lady Oracle is written in first person. The narrator is Joan Foster, named after the actress Joan Crawford by her mother. Joan writes gothics under a pen name for a living (nobody knows about that) and she got famous for a book of poems she wrote with the help of automatic writing, titled “Lady Oracle.” But it’s in more ways than just that one that Joan leads a life of disguises.

The story itself is not told chronologically. Most of the story is actually a long flashback viewed from what the reader learns in the first chapters. It’s also divided into five parts so that the “now” frames the “past.” The first part begins with the sentence quoted on the back blurb. In this first part, Joan Foster is introduced as a woman who doesn’t know what to do after she successfully faked her death and fled to Italy. The question asked is: how did Joan get to that point in her life? The next three parts are there to answer that. They recount Joan’s life up to the point the reader saw in the first part, and deal with her childhood, the men in her life, and her success with her poems book, her affair, and the reasons for her faking her own death. The fifth and last part takes up where the first part ended and gives Joan’s situation some kind of resolution, although I would say it depends on the reader what kind of resolution you get.

Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle is a novel about a woman in search of her identity. It tells the story of a woman who doesn’t know who she is and therefore, as said above, leads a life of disguises. It resembles more a character study than a proper story, IMO, because it ends more or less where it began. At the end, it’s not clear if Joan learned anything about herself and her life. Some things seem to indicate that. But it’s nearly equally possible to argue that she’ll go on in more or less the same vein. Like she says: “I keep thinking I should learn some lesson from all of this, as my mother would have said” (p. 345). The reference to her mother makes it all more ambiguous again, maybe even questions the belief that you should learn (from your mistakes). So if you go for novels with no clear resolution, Lady Oracle is not a bad choice, IMO.

I understood Joan, but reading about her was a bit exasperating sometimes since Joan is essentially a passive character. She wants to be loved and tries to be whatever the others want her to be. She succeeds with that and then runs into problems because nobody knows her. I understood that and her, I even thought her interesting, but the only active thing she does is faking her own death and then she’s not really smart about that. Even her writing is done passively; either with closed eyes (the gothics) or by automatic writing (the poems). Joan’s passiveness is another reason why I see Lady Oracle more as a character study than a story. And I think the enjoyment of this novel partly depends on if you have patience with an essentially passive character.

Joan is rather humorous sometimes in her commentary and on the whole, the writing is smooth and a joy to read. There are changes in style, for example the gothic romance parts read differently than the rest of the novel. Near the end, the novel uses more and more farce-like elements and the way Joan fakes her death (and the reason why she had to do it) were a bit much for me and perhaps too melodramatic. But then, that works with the hidden point that this novel seems to make: A certain kind of fiction is bad for you; don’t read it it; it will screw your life. And frankly, that’s something I’m a bit tired of hearing. In that way, it’s a point Jane Austen made in Northanger Abbey and, I suspect (haven’t read it), Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary. Especially the later parts of Lady Oracle read like Joan can no longer tell apart real life and fictional life. Joan longs for a happy end in her life and often her life reads like she used fictional conventions to tell it (for example the affair she begins).

Lady Oracle is a well written, well plotted and well structured novel. It raises questions and declines to answer them (see the open end, you can argue both ways, I think) and it leaves a lot for the reader to puzzle out and make connections. But I really didn’t care for the undercurrent that answers the old school question: “What did the author want to say?”

Would I recommend this novel? Probably yes.

Would I read this novel again? Maybe.

Grade: 3,5 / 5 (it’s the undercurrent thing, otherwise better)


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