I used to read Margaret Atwood avidly at one time. She is undoubtedly one of the world’s literary greats, and books like The Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1987, have found a new readership with its dystopian themes that are oddly resonant today.
But of all her books, it is Lady Oracle that I seem to come back to time and again. It’s heroine, Joan Foster, is a romance writer with a bunch of secrets and a life that regularly gets out of control. When she receives a blackmail threat, Joan reacts true to form by running away. She does this by staging her own death and flees to Italy. The novel pieces together her unhappy childhood; her affair with a Polish count who inspires her to write gothic romances; her marriage to Arthur who seems to be the opposite in so many ways to Paul.
What I like about it:
- The first-person narration works well because Joan is so interesting. She’s had a lot of challenges in life, is sad and alone, yet she writes passionate romance fiction. And in spite of being kind of flaky, she makes the bold move to fake her death.
- There are some brilliant chapter openings, like: I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it. (Chap. 1); or: If you let one worm out of a can of worms, all the other worms will follow (Chap. 5); or: I sat in exile on the Roman curb, on top of my portable Olivetti in its case, and wept (Chap. 18); I decided to ignore my suicide since there was nothing I could do about it (Chap 31).
- Atwood is such a witty writer, that picking up the book at random, you find so many gems – the promise of the chapter openings continuing in the following pages.
- Throughout the book there are entertaining snippets of Joan’s writing – the gothic romance she is working on as well as her poetry. The conundrums thrown up by her automatic writing give you a humorous look at the writing process.
- While also being an inspired master of prose (and poetry), Atwood also knows how to write a cracking good story.
- Who doesn’t from time to time feel like faking one’s own death and running away to Italy?