One of my projects this year was to make a dent in the Atwood canon, and I seem to have done so in the latter half of 2017. I had heard very little about Life Before Man, but I thought it would be intriguing to see some of her earlier work, since I had never read any books published prior to The Handmaid’s Tale. You can see her sly humor and nascent feminism here, even if there are some heavily domestic tropes in the novel.
Atwood pulls apart the threads of family and relationship like no other, and this novel focuses on a trio of individuals who become pulled into each other’s webs of influence. This novel is told from three perspectives: Elizabeth’s, Nate’s, and Lesje’s. Elizabeth and Nate are married, though theirs is an open relationship of sorts. Elizabeth’s latest lover Chris has committed suicide and Nate’s has left him for someone who will leave his wife and children. Lesje is more interested in dinosaurs than men, but she is dating the staid and reliable William, until Nate pulls her into his orbit. Did I mention that Elizabeth and Lesje are also coworkers at the museum? The novel twists and turns as each person tries to gain control of his life and possibly, of others.
If you need to like your characters in order to like a novel, you’ll want to give this one a skip. Pretty much everyone is unlikeable in this novel, and no one comes off really well. I don’t mind, though, because I think that Atwood is making a fairly sharp and unflattering statement about infidelity and hypocrisy. Further, because she alternates perspectives, you get to read each person’s point-of-view, and it veers from sympathetic to repulsive fairly quickly. It’s a challenge to exercise empathy with people who make poor life choices, but Atwood is up to the occasion and works fluently in the uncomfortable. If you’ve never read Atwood or are not a diehard fan, you won’t want to start here. But if you are and have never read this one, I suggest you do.
Cross-posted to my blog.