Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye was published in 1988. At the time, I was a huge (and horrified) fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was published four years earlier, but I didn’t read Cat’s Eye until the summer of 2021. I’m writing this late-to-the-party review so new readers will crack the spine of this masterpiece. I wish I could send a copy to every friend I’ve ever had. I’ve sent one to my mother already and will give a copy to my daughter too.
I found Cat’s Eye on a list of books about female friendship, alongside books like The Group, My Brilliant Friend, and Sula, and purchased it as research and inspiration for the novel I’m currently working on about best friends. Had I not gone looking, I never would have known what I’d missed. I wish I’d read it when I was a teenager growing apart from my childhood friends, wondering why we’d been so cruel to one another. Or when I entered the patriarchal workforce and struggled to survive as one of the only women in the room. It would have spoken to me when I was a new mother pursuing a career in the arts and an insecure wife. I was born in a later era, but every word of this book makes me feel heard.
Considered Atwood’s most autobiographical work, Cat’s Eye spans the life of Elaine Risley, a middle-aged painter returning to Toronto, the city of her youth, in the mid-1980s, for a retrospective of her work. Home for the first time in years—she fled to Vancouver when her first marriage dissolved—Elaine visits the locations of her childhood, which sparks the story to jump back and forth between preparations for her Toronto show and the life that led her to that point: her challenging friendship with classmate Cordelia in the 1940s, young adulthood, art school in the 1960s, her first marriage, motherhood. This is perhaps my favorite type of narrative—impactful moments strung together to create a whole. Written in first person, present tense, Atwood puzzles together Elaine’s past with crisp (bitingly funny) prose and vivid, often harrowing, descriptions. These are the relationships, failures, insecurities, and triumphs that make up Elaine’s life, the ingredients that make her the painter she becomes.
While the gallery prepares for her show, Elaine tries to connect the dots. But time and memory aren’t linear, or structured, or logical. She fears losing her grasp on the past. “There are several diseases of the memory. … I sometimes wonder which of these will afflict me, later; because I know one of them will. For years I wanted to be older, and now I am.”
This isn’t the first time Elaine contemplates the nature of memory: when Elaine and her friends transfer to a newly built school, but Cordelia and Grace have skipped ahead so they’re no longer in the same grade, Elaine already recognizes how time erases the past. In this scene, she begins sixth grade:
“I’ve forgotten things, I’ve forgotten that I’ve forgotten them. I remember my old school, but only dimly, as if it was last there five years ago instead of five months. … I’ve forgotten all of the bad things that happened. Although I see Cordelia and Grace and Carol every day, I remember none of those things; only that they used to be my friends. …Their names are like names in a footnote, or names written in spidery brown ink in the fronts of Bibles. There is no emotion attached to these names. They’re like the names of distant cousins, people who live far away, people I hardly know. Time is missing.”
Elaine’s scientist brother, Stephen, furthers this theme during a lecture Elaine attends after not seeing her brother for years. In a large auditorium in Boston, she listens to him speak. “‘When we gaze at the night sky,’” he says, “‘we are looking at fragments of the past. … [E]verything up there and indeed everything down here is a fossil, a leftover.’” Throughout Cat’s Eye, Atwood mines those fossils, the indelible imprints of the “picoseconds” of Elaine’s life, for elusive resolution. “‘If we could travel in a time machine,’” Stephen continues, “‘… we would find ourselves in a universe replete with energies we do not understand.’” And so it is for Elaine, who at times doesn’t remember specifics Atwood includes in earlier chapters that span Elaine’s youth. Which is how memory works, after all; as hard as we try, only bits and pieces remain, and only from our perspective. Often, Elaine and her family members have entirely different recollections of the same events.
From scarring childhood resentments, to love affairs, to details that might seem insignificant, like donated canned goods, Elaine’s life experiences appear in her work. She doesn’t always recall her exact inspiration when considering her paintings, which share titles with the book’s sections, but the reader does. We recognize the subjects, and we know why a rubber plant, for instance, “sums them up.”
Before the gallery opening, Elaine offers an interpretation of her one painting of Cordelia:
“Half a Face, it’s called: an odd title, because Cordelia’s entire face is visible. But behind her … is another face, covered with a white cloth. The effect is of a theatrical mask. Perhaps. I had trouble with this picture. It was hard for me to fix Cordelia in one time, at one age. I wanted her about thirteen, looking out with that defiant, almost belligerent stare of hers. So?”
Elaine’s recollections are decades dulled, fossils in her brain—she doesn’t seem to remember the significance of the elements of the painting, why it’s called Half a Face, why the face behind Cordelia is wrapped in white cloth. But as readers, we do. We’re privy to the childhood scenes from which these particulars were plucked; for us, they’re still fresh. It’s masterfully done.
Because many of the details—the city where Atwood grew up, Atwood’s father’s profession as a forest entomologist, the controversy surrounding Elaine’s work—are autobiographical, we not only gain insight into Elaine’s process and journey, but also Atwood’s. Through Elaine’s riveting story, Atwood, who was already a literary star when Cat’s Eye was published, offers a peek into the creative forces behind her writing, the mechanisms of her brilliant brain. It’s a page-turning saga filled with heart-wrenching scenes, but it is also an adroit and nuanced portrait of an artist as a young woman. What a gift.