Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is one of those authors that I thoroughly enjoy, and have amassed a vast collection of, and yet have somehow managed never to actually read many of their books. (Others in this category include Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Von Arnim, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Henry James, Enid Bagnold…the list could go on) I’ve read The Blind Assassin, of course; hasn’t everyone? This is one book I NEVER fail to see on a charity shop’s shelves. And also The Robber Bridegroom, which was very good, and The Edible Woman, which I loved when I was 17, and was what started me off on collecting Atwood’s books. I have almost all of them, in handsome first edition hardcovers that I take much delight in sniffing out for pennies in charity shops (I like to kid myself that my collection will be worth something someday), but I just never feel particularly compelled to read them.

It’s odd, this lack of compulsion, because when I am actually reading one of her books, I greatly enjoy myself and love all of the strange and wonderful characters and scenarios she concocts. However, when I close the pages my abiding memory appears to become one of intellectualness and feminist criticism and hard work. The first two are true enough but the latter certainly isn’t; as clever and intellectual as Margaret Atwood’s prose is, she’s not abstract or obtuse or difficult in any way to enjoy. This is what makes her stand out, I think, in a sea of too clever for words ‘intellectual’ modern writers who write impossibly impenetrable books that are deep and meaningful and are blatant prize winning attempts. Rather like films that have either 1) the Holocaust or 2) Meryl Streep in them. Also, she is not a one trick pony; she has written a huge amount of excellent books covering a variety of genres, and unusually, her early books are just as good as her later ones.  I think because she is such an intelligent novelist, I shy away from picking up her books because I know I’ll have to properly engage and think and get out my literature student hat all over again, and as much as I like doing those things, most of the time I get scared that I won’t understand and so don’t bother even trying. I feel much the same about A S Byatt, and Iris Murdoch, who I am yet to read precisely because I am afraid of her. This is irrational and I have now promised myself I won’t let this happen again; as I enjoyed Lady Oracle so much, I can’t wait to read more Atwood; The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, Alias Grace, Cat’s Eye…they’re all waiting for me on the TBR shelves!

Lady Oracle is about Joan Foster, who, when the book opens, has just faked her own death and is living in a dingy apartment in a suburb of Rome, where she plans to start a new life. She then goes on to relate the woeful tale of how she has ended up here, and how nothing in her past has ever lived up to her dreams. We go right back to Joan’s childhood, when she was a fat, unattractive and largely friendless child, who was a bitter disappointment to her thin, beautiful, and cruel mother, who let Joan know how much she repulsed her. Her father, a distant, shadowy figure, was an anaesthetist who worked as a sort of legitimate contract killer during the war; this juxtaposition between taking and restoring life in his past and present lives makes him an enigma to Joan, and they have little to say to one another. Her mother; neurotic, nagging, jealous and possessive, rules the home, and there is little life or joy to find within the house where the sofas are covered in plastic to prevent damage. Joan escapes to her larger than life aunt’s house on a regular basis, where she is taken to a Spiritualist church and encouraged to see dead people and do ‘automatic’ writing through a spirit guide. This feeds Joan’s already overactive and romanticised imagination, and after an illness that sees her lose all her excess weight and become thin, as well as the death of her aunt, who leaves her some money,  she sheds her old life and hops on a plane to England, changing her name to that of her beloved aunt in the process.

In England she is rescued by a Knight in Shining Armour; an eccentric emigre Polish Count by the name of Paul. She swiftly moves in with him and is swept into his world of romance and adventure, and it is through his double identity as Mavis Quilp, author of Nurse books written to feed the feminine need for escapism, that Joan takes on yet another fantasy, secret existence, as a writer of Costume Gothics. Her daydreams of being swept away by a handsome cad and danced with into the moonlight are recreated in the trashy historical fiction that funds her new life, and yet Joan is not happy, because she doesn’t love Paul. After a walk in Hyde Park one day, she bumps into a fellow Canadian, political activist Arthur, who is an undemonstrative cold fish only interested in the latest fashionable crisis affecting humanity. Joan falls in love with him, despite his indifference to her, and they marry, with ne’er a romantic demonstration from Arthur, who knows nothing of Joan’s former life as a fat child, nor that she writes trashy novels. In fact, Joan doesn’t tell him hardly anything about herself, but Arthur is far too interested in himself and his campaigns to notice that Joan is even there. Starved of romance and affection, Joan can’t write, and to help her find her way back into a creative mindsight, she tries ‘automatic’ writing again. To her surprise she finds that when she falls into a trance she manages to create absurd and fantastical poems; she sends these to a publisher who raves about Joan as a new feminist voice, and publishes the book under the title ‘Lady Oracle’. The book is a runaway success and Joan finds herself held up as a modern icon. However Joan’s passionate nature is not satisfied and she finds herself embroiled in another affair, which again leads to disappointment, followed by blackmail, and a desperate, miserable Joan, seeing no way out of the mess her life has begun, decides to fake her death, and resurrect herself in Italy to start all over again. However, as with everything in Joan’s life, it doesn’t go as she planned, and it isn’t long before the past catches up with her…

I thought this was fantastic. Atwood is such a witty writer, and Joan is a marvellous, hopeless character who drifts through life, making it up as she goes along, living several different identities while really inhabiting a fantasy world, unable to cope with her actual existence. The novel is all about split identities, duplicitious characters, fantasy lives and escapism. Everyone in Joan’s life is not the person they at first appear to be, and everyone is hiding, masking, secreting, both from themselves and from those around them.  Joan has never actually worked out who she is, and as a consequence, she has never really been loved for herself. She is easily consumed by other people; first by her mother, then Paul, then Arthur, then the ‘Royal Porcupine’, her latest lover, and she splits parts of herself off and becomes the person each of these people want her to be, with no true happiness or success in any of these relationships. She is presented to the world as ‘Lady Oracle’; wise, all seeing, all knowing; but really, she is none of these things, and her shambolic, messy life is a product of a woman living on daydreams, and searching for a romantic fantasy that can never come true. Joan is a symbol of modern womanhood; trying to be everything to everyone, and losing her own sense of self in the process. The front cover illustration of my edition shows a Russian doll, which expresses the essential message of the book excellently; we are all of us composed of several different persons, and part of life’s struggle is working out how to fit everything we are and everything we want to be into one body, one life, one person, one identity. Will Joan manage to work this out now she has started afresh, reborn from the waters of Lake Ontario? I don’t know…and I wish Margaret Atwood had written a sequel so that I could find out!

41 comments

  1. I consider myself an Atwood fan, but have never read The Blind Assassin (gasp!). Lady Oracle sounds wonderful, but my two favorites are Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride.

    1. That is shocking, JoAnn! I loved The Robber Bride as well and Cat’s Eye is next on my list…I want to read my entire Atwood collection this summer, so we’ll see how far I get!

  2. I’ve only read Alias Grace by Atwood (quite good too and also about a split identity) although I also used to collect her books! (And Henry James too, although his later novels really are impossible to finish.) Thanks for this review, I never know where to go next with Atwood. As for A.S. Byatt, start with her novella Morphio Eugenia in the book Angels & Insects (It was made into a movie called Angels & Insects, but there’s actually two novellas in the book). It’s straight forward and short and beautifully written, about a Victorian scientist. I’ve only read more of her books within the last year, but I read and liked that one years ago.

    1. Henry James is such a slog to get through, isn’t he?! I have tried again and again and I just get bogged down with them. I hope you give Lady Oracle a try – it really is a fun book to read, as in entertaining! I loved Possession and hated The Children’s Book despite loving the writing style, and I did try Angels and Insects but couldn’t get into it and i believe I gave my copy away. I might try again one day though!

  3. What I love about her novels is that even when I’m not especially fond of the story, the way that she writes (the structure, the seemingly endless layers that allow you to skate on the top if you wish or to delve down if you’re particularly engaged) is such a pleasure that I enjoy her work regardless.

    I was anxious about revisiting earlier works (like The Edible Woman and Surfacing but found them just as satisfying and compelling as her more recent novels. Lady Oracle is one that I haven’t read for some time, but your response is urging me in that direction once more.

    1. That is so true – sometimes I have been a bit repulsed by her characters, but the way she writes is so exciting and engrossing that you can’t help enjoying yourself anyway!

      I hope you reread Lady Oracle soon, and I am aiming to read all of her novels that I own this summer, at long last. So you might get to revisit them through me!

  4. I found this one in a green virago edition at oxfam and read it this summer. I’d only read Wilderness Tips before this and couldn’t remember if I liked it or not. But I found it completely engaging and the character flawed and delightful.

    1. I’m so glad you liked it too, Heather! Delightful is the perfect word for it. I haven’t read Wildnerness Tips – I seem to have only collected her huge doorstops of novels, but I’m sure eventually I’ll get around to it!

  5. I have only read Atwood’s Penelopiad, though I have Blind Assassin on my shelf to read. I don’t know why I don’t read her! It seems she is quite well-liked. I like the idea of this book being about reinventing yourself. Though I wish people didn’t think they had to shed all of their past to become new and fresh.

    1. I’d like to read The Penelopiad; I had good intentions with all of those Canongate Myths books but somehow they fell by the wayside and I never read any of them. I think her reputation as being intellectual puts some people off, plus her novels are very long – but The Blind Assassin is wonderful and very accessible so do read it if you get a chance!

      Yes – this is very true. You can have a fresh start without denying who you are and where you came from!

  6. I have found Atwood unattractive in the past, but at the moment am reading ‘Oryx and Crake’ for one of my book groups and to my surprise both enjoying and appreciating it. Coincidentally, my other book group has scheduled ‘The Blind Assassin’ for next month, so I’ve been dreading this six week spell for some time. Now it doesn’t seem as bad and I’m quite looking forward my second Atwood in almost as many weeks.

    1. How funny that you ended up doing two of her books so close together! It is the universe conspiring to make you read Atwood, clearly! I’m glad you’re enjoying Oryx and Crake – another of Atwood’s books I really must get around to. The Blind Assassin was an early Atwood read for me, back in my teens, and it fascinated me. I hope you love it as much as I did!

  7. I have enjoyed Atwood in the past and, like you, have not read most of her books. My introduction to her was through a fellow worker who rushed up to my desk one morning and said “here, you have to read this”. “this” was The Handmaid’s Tale more than 20 years ago. My book group later read it and had a great discussion. The movie – nah! I then read Cats Eye and couldn’t put it down. Why haven’t I read more? She does take an investment in time. That’s it. That’s my excuse. The Penelopiad, which a good friend gave me one year for my birthday (my given name is Penelope – I told you I was of Greek descent!) and I started it and never went back. Your great review here will propel me forward on that.

    Rachel, I appreciate your discussion on women and how we don’t always work ourselves out to be who we want to be instead of who everyone else wants us to be as an underlying theme of The Oracle. That in itself would present a good discussion of the book.

    Well done.

    1. Penelope is such a beautiful name! I have yet to read The Handmaid’s Tale and I should, I know it…

      You are so right – it’s the investment of time that puts me off as well. Knowing it won’t be a quick, easy read just makes me think ‘no…I’ll pick something else’. I shouldn’t be so lazy! I hope you will read some more Atwood…she’s perfect summer reading – you can relax in the sun and really soak yourself into her world.

      Thank you – women and their roles and how they relate to the other people in their lives really interests me. I think that’s why I enjoy Atwood’s work so much – she has so much to say about women in a subtle way that doesn’t scream ‘feminism’ but is very thought provoking and challenging. I like that gentle approach.

  8. I’ve only read The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood so far. I started reading two of her other books, and didn’t finish either one, which has made me afraid that THT was a flash in the pan and in the end it will turn out I don’t like Atwood at all. But this sounds very wonderful! Every new thing you mentioned in your plot synopsis sounded successively more awesome than the previous thing. Time to give Atwood another go, clearly.

    1. Oh but you will! You just have to persevere – from everything I’ve read about you, I think you will get a real kick out of The Robber Bride – try it and then tell me how you get on!

  9. I’ve read quite a number of Atwoods but Lady Oracle is one I haven’t read. I’m definitely going to buy it now. How wonderful that you have all those other Atwoods waiting for you. My favourite is Alias Grace. Cats Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale are also very, very good. Oryx and Crake, exceptional but not for everyone. She is brilliant with a capital B.

    1. Astrid you have read so many! I’m glad you’re going to try Lady Oracle – I am definitely going to read Cat’s Eye this summer as well as Alias Grace – I want to make a real dent in my Atwood collection because I know I am seriously missing out on greatness!

  10. I enjoyed this book a fair bit, but it’s not top-tier Atwood for me. Blind Assassin, Robber Bride, Cat’s Eye, and Handmaid’s Tale are my favorites; this would be on a level with Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood for me. (I didn’t like Alias Grace, but I’m an odd duck in that respect, since most seem to like it best.) Atwood is one of a handful of authors whose new books I try to read soon after they come out because I almost always enjoy them.

    As for Byatt, I loved Possession. It was my first Byatt, and I found it utterly thrilling. Perhaps it helped that I hadn’t heard much about it, and so never had the idea that Byatt was complex or difficult. Jenny gave it to me for Christmas one year and told me that when she read it she kept thinking the whole time “Teresa would love this!” She was right.

    I am afraid of Iris Murdoch, though, but like you, I’m sure it’s irrational. And your line about the Holocaust and Meryl Streep made me laugh out loud!

    1. Interesting! I haven’t read Cat’s Eye or The Handmaid’s Tale, or Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood yet, so I don’t know how they will compare for me, but I am looking forward to digging deeper into her work, I must say.

      Possession is one of all time favourites but The Children’s Book was such a slog that it’s now put me off. I have tried reading some of her other stuff -the Babylon trilogy thingy, but I just got bored. I think sometimes she tries too hard to be clever and I can’t be bothered to wade through to get to the good stuff, you know?

      I’m glad you’re afraid of Iris Murdoch too! I have The Bell to read – must try and get to that this summer, and then hopefully I will get over my irrational fear and find her wonderful!!

      Hehee- funny because it’s true!

  11. I think we have discussed in past, Rachel, that we are exactly the same when it comes to Atwood; I too have all of her novels and yet only read half of them (I love the sound of your collection; I have her Virago editions, a couple of them in green). I enjoy her so much and yet I don’t invest the time or the expectation (in case I am disappointment) nearly often enough.

    You simply must read The Handmaid’s Tale soon – it’s her magnum Opus! I loved Alias Grace and I’m an odd fish in that I was a little disappointed in The Blind Assassin, although I think it would improve on rereading; The Penelopiad

    1. I’m glad I’m not alone, Claire! I love my little collection but I need to read it! It is all about the investment of time, isn’t it? Her books need to be savoured, and too often I am too lazy and pick an easier read instead.

      I will, I will! I have all of these and WILL read them this summer!

  12. I haven’t managed (yet) to read all of Atwood, but of the few that I have read have all been blooming marvellous and not in the least disappointing.

    I agree with Claire(paperback reader) you must read The Handmaids Tale, it really is excellent.

    Iris Murdoch on the other hand is a bit hit and miss with me, I either love em or loathe em.

    1. I’m glad you’re a fan as well, and I will read The Handmaid’s Tale this summer. I am going to take some of them on holiday with me I think – perfect for enjoyable deep reading when I am on the beach soaking up the rays!

      I am yet to try Iris but I am nervous…yet if I never try I’ll never know, so I shall pick up The Bell at some point soon!

  13. I have vague memories of reading something by Margaret Atwood in high school but for the life of me can’t remember what. As a Canadian with Lake Ontario a stone throw away she is probably an icon that I’m taking for granted. It’s quite interesting to watch the reaction of people at the library when it comes to her books. Some like her, some are indifferent but quite a few find her weird. I suspect that comes from perception and they most likely have never read anything by her.

    1. It was probably The Handmaid’s Tale, Darlene! That is the quintessential Atwood but I sure as goodness haven’t got around to it yet – always behind, as usual!

      Atwood does seem to divide people – if they’ve read her, people tend to like her, but she does have a reputation for being ‘intellectual’ so many people I am sure never bother trying her. I would have thought she is a bit of a Canadian National Treasure, no? I know she has done a lot to raise the profile of Canadian Literature, which is sorely neglected in academia.

  14. Perhaps it’s just age creeping (galloping) up on me, but I find the Atwood books that I read in my teens and early twenties (like THE EDIBLE WOMAN and LADY ORACLE) to be to the ones I like the best. Later books (even THE HANDMAID’S TALE, which so many consider her best work) don’t do much for me. I still have my beat-up paperback copies of WOMAN and ORACLE from the 1970s. I pull them out once in a while for a re-read.

    I saw a reference to A.S. Byatt above. If you haven’t read THE VIRGIN IN THE GARDEN, I would start with that. POSSESSION is great, but with almost all Byatt’s book, I find there’s just too much natural science. That probably says more about my non-scientific mind than about Byatt.

    1. Maybe Atwood fitted your mindset better in your early 20s? Those more feminist works definitely strike a chord with me now but I’m not sure how I’d feel about them if I read them as an older woman.

      I LOVE Possession but I have struggled with her other books – I will try again one day. Her obsession with natural science does perplex me a little – it’s not one of my interests and while I like being educated, sometimes I just want an entertaining and not an overly intellectual read! Thanks for the recommendation – I will seek out The Virgin in the Garden at some point and see if I can get started on Byatt again!

  15. The sentence ‘I thoroughly enjoy, and have amassed a vast collection of, and yet have somehow managed never to actually read many of their books’ is exactly the thoughts I have on Atwood. I have been telling myself I must pick up one of the (many) books of hers I have in the TBR and get a wriggle on. I think after this I shall dust off Cat’s Eye and read it pronto! Wonderful review Rachel… as ever!

    1. It’s interesting that there are several of us in the Atwood collecting but not reading boat! Glad you enjoyed the review…and I hope you do pick up Cat’s Eye this summer!

  16. I have been wanting to read Atwood and have takent her books from the library shelf andput it back again several times. This week I actually brought one home and will definitely get to it. My nonsense has to stop and I should get to grips with at least one of her books!

  17. You’ve gotta read The Handmaid’s Tale. Although I’ve liked Atwood for a long time, for some reason I hadn’t gotten around to this one until last year (she’s just too prolific!).

    Anyway, it was absolutely thrilling, and one of the few books last year that I had to read in every little spare moment until it was done.

    1. Ok Ok! Your endorsement of The Blue Castle gave me one of my favourite reads of the entire year so entirely on your urging I shall take The Handmaid’s Tale on holiday with me! Thank you for convincing me!

      1. Ooh, success! I hope you love it as much as I did. It’s probably a pretty fast read either way, so I trust you’re taking an assortment of reading material!

  18. I am so delighted to find the world of Margaret Atwood and her large fan base — though I have always abhorred the idea of fans. But, the novels leave a lasting impression and a desire to understand how much (or in some cases, hopefully, how little I am like her protagonists). I only wish I had found her earlier, but then I’d be through with her books and what would I read next?
    Thanks for the suggestion on A Byatt.
    I read Blind Assassin first then Cat’s Eye and just finished Lady Oracle. BA is my favorite …. and what sent me on my road to read all of her work. Marvelous escapism and each (so far) like the maze in Lady Oracle.

  19. I came across your blog when looking for an edition of Lady Oracle — yours with the nesting dolls is wonderful! I hadn’t finished the book when I left it at a farmer’s market — drat! And now, I figure I might as well get an edition that I cherish, rather than just picked up at a used bookstore.

    Anyway — would you mind telling me the edition / publisher / year / etc so that I might narrow my search?

    1. Hi Kara! I just checked for you. I think you might find it a little tricky as it’s a British first edition, published by Andre Deutsch in 1976. I’ve never seen another copy – mine was a lucky charity shop find. Good luck tracking it down!

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