Throughout my high school years, I was a member of the Quality Paperback Book Club, an outfit that offered big, thick trade paperbacks, often exclusively, under the same rough model as the more famous Book of the Month Club. Part of the angle that QPBC took was that they were providing more upscale, literary fare. Let the others peddle the trash, they were going to stick with highbrow material, and seeing an author or book included in the monthly newsletter was one of the ways I thought I could discern between the mundane and the respectable. It wasn’t a foolproof method, but it was a necessary supplement to my education. I should have heard of Margaret Atwood by 1988 (she’d already published a half dozen novels by that time, at least two of which were considered pending additions to the canon of modern literature), but I sadly hadn’t. I had exactly one English teacher who even bothered recommending books that weren’t officially assigned as part of the curriculum, and he limited himself to the stockpile of battered copies of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that he kept in his office, all of them just waiting to be foisted upon any impressionable young victim who made the mistake of crossing the threshold.
So I’m not sure what it was about the write-up for Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye that made me decide I should purchase it. Certainly the plainest description of the plot–a woman reflects back on the social dynamics of her school years, with particularly troubled memories of a tormentor by the name of Cordelia–doesn’t exactly seem like something that would appeal to my teenaged self, still struggling between the typical posturing of youthful masculinity and the more enlightened person I was struggling to become. Maybe this was part of that discovery process, or maybe there was just something in the book club synopsis that struck me as uniquely interesting. It could just be that I had a little extra money in my pocket and wanted to do something with it at the time this flyer landed in my mailbox. The publication date listed in online sources does suggest that I may have ordered it in my last weeks of summer or first weeks of college. Either way, there would have been an odd mix of personal reinvention and sudden disposable income at play (I never earned any sort of paycheck until my first work study position was bestowed upon me). Whatever the reason, I ordered the book and somehow fit in a reading of it amidst all the assigned words I had as an English major.
I remember the novel as a revelation. While I know this impression isn’t entirely accurate, I hold the book in my head and heart as the first novel that I read that was about adulthood. This notion is already a little off the track given that much of the story concerns the myriad ways that young people can find to be cruel to one another, but Atwood came at it with a deep, resonant understanding of the intricacies of human psychology that seemed new, wondrous and uncommonly wise to me. The novel wasn’t a collection of incidents; it was a steady, thoughtful procession of emotions and impacts, the happenings that crisscrossed the plot a tool to bore away at the people she’d created rather than the primary purpose of the pages. The depth of the work was striking to me. I became a full and complete convert to Atwood almost immediately, asking to focus on her work for one of my classes during sophomore year, mistakenly believing that the proud Canadian qualified for inclusion in the Modern American Authors class (hey, the professor didn’t catch the error either).
I’ve also stuck with Atwood longer than just about any other writer from that era of my life, continually picking up each new offering and occasionally dipping into the earlier books in her bibliography (though, oddly, I still haven’t read seminal works The Edible Woman and The Handmaid’s Tale). Across all those pages, she’s consistently delivered exactly what I found that first time: a fiercely intelligent understanding of her characters, stirring empathy for the lurking pains of life and elegant prose that hints at her extensive and acclaimed work as a poet. Occasionally, she even unleashes a staggering masterpiece, as she did with 2000’s incredibly complex The Blind Assassin, which was one-half of the single greatest bookstore purchase I’ve ever made (the other half of that purchase will be covered whenever I get to the third author who will be spotlighted in this feature). By now, I’m quite well-versed in Atwood’s writing, but one of the reasons I keep reading is that her marvelous consistency doesn’t prevent each new novel from providing that same blessed sense of unwitting discovery that I felt with Cat’s Eye all those years ago.