Margaret Atwood (1988)
*NOTE: This review probably contains some spoilers. Read the book. Please.*
I read this book on recommendation from another book blog, the Insatiable Booksluts (do I follow partially because of the name? Yes). Their review (which you can read here) popped up in my inbox one day and I wanted to read it. So I found a copy and sat down with it. And, yes, since it was Atwood, it took a while. And, yes, it was emotional and painful and more than once I cried a little. But I never wanted to put it down.
Any girl, or any parent of a girl, knows how terribly cruel girls can be. We get catty, we get nasty. We do more damage than a quick brawl could accomplish, and we leave longer-lasting scars. The psychological torment girls inflict upon each other stays around for a long time. And Atwood understands that perfectly.
We are brought into the life of painter Elaine Risley as she returns home for a retrospect in her honor. But as she returns to her childhood stomping grounds, she is firmly planted on memory lane, bringing the reader with her. The caustic adult Elaine is starkly different from the innocent, blunt Elaine of youth. She is wiser and more bitter than nine-year-old Elaine, who befriends the ultimate frenemy, Cordelia. She is more jaded than high school Elaine, who suddenly has all the power in her friendship with Cordelia. And she’s more mature than college and art school Elaine, who cannot seem to help needing to be needed.
When nine-year-old Elaine is befriended by Cordelia, it turns sour quickly. Elaine becomes the punching bag of the group, and doesn’t know better than to put up with it. She knows that it hurts, and she knows that this is not how friends treat each other, but they need her for this. And what she doesn’t know is that she doesn’t have to fill that need. So she quietly bears the burden of being bullied. Until one day when Cordelia and the other girls take it too far, and Elaine’s mother springs into action, telling her daughter that she doesn’t have to be Cordelia’s friend. Elaine finally understands and befriends a nicer, quieter girl at school, leaving Cordelia behind.
In high school, Cordelia transfers to Elaine’s school and the two become friends again. But now it’s Elaine who has the power in the friendship. She is a plastic, for lack of a better term. And Cordelia is now the one to follow behind.
Finally, in college, art student Elaine pushes Cordelia, who is now a second-rate actress, firmly away. Elaine lives her life, but is permanently affected by her earlier years with Cordelia (which she can’t remember). She still needs to be needed, as proven by her relationship with her playboy of an art teacher. And when that fire burns out, she is left with wild, glamorous Jon, who becomes her first husband. Finally, after he cheats on her, she takes their daughters and leaves, eventually marrying Jon’s polar opposite, mild-mannered Ben.
Which brings us to the final bits of Elaine’s memories. She goes to visit her dying mother, who is cleaning house, and finds her old cat’s eye marble, which she used as a shield of sorts against Cordelia’s cruelty. Her mother reminds her of the torment she suffered as a child at the hands of Cordelia, which Elaine had previously forgotten. She returns to the school and begs the memory of Cordelia to let her go, to let her live.
This book was hard to read. I’ll admit that. It was emotional. But it was well worth it. I got chills when Elaine returned to the grade school playground as an enlightened adult. I sympathized when I saw the recurring desire of Elaine’s to be needed. I cried when nine-year-old Elaine was so desperate for control over some of her pain that she took to peeling the skin off of her feet at night.
I will be reading this book again. And I’ll probably cry again. But this has got to be one of the best, most insightful novels I have ever read.