Was this Atwood’s first novel? It was pub’d in 1969 and various sources claim that it established her as a serious writer. It’s an interesting read—you can tell it’s an early work because bits are too stolid, like Marian’s overt reference to returning to first-person in Part 3. I was jarred by the return, not really having noticed the switch from first- to third-person between parts 1 & 2.
Marian works at a survey research firm (much like the one that Atwood worked at in Toronto before writing the book), editing questionnaires and sampling products (like pudding flavors). She puts up with her boyfriend, Peter, carefully trying not to make him think that she wants to marry him. In fact, she runs away during an outing with another couple, drunk but clear in her mind about what she wants. When Peter finds her, he pops the question. She’s living with Ainsley, a psych-major taking temporary jobs and permanently focused on the idea of having a baby (eventually luring Marian’s friend Len into the equation on the optimal day to have a Springtime baby). They rent an apartment in an old mansion and avoid the furious stares of their landlady who suspect them up to something. On one Saturday, she heads out with a questionnaire to ascertain the effectiveness of a beer jingle and meets Duncan, an eccentric grad student who loves ironing as a release from stress (she later runs into him at the laundromat).
Part 2 switches to third-person for Marian, as she reluctantly plods towards marriage, losing her appetite for meat and then for basically every other food item. When work finds out that she’s engaged, her boss firmly says that she won’t be working there after the wedding. She has an affair with Duncan. Peter throws a party and Marian rashly invites Duncan and his roommates, as well as Ainsley, last minute. At that party, she gets drunk, realizes that her life would be hell with Peter, and escapes to find Duncan. They consummate their affair in a seedy hotel room and she resolves to tell Peter it’s over. She does this by baking a sponge cake in the shape of a woman, and when Peter rages over to confront her about disappearing from the party, she says that he’s been trying to consume her, that she made this other woman which would do much better for him.
Part 3, Marian back to first-person, in control of her life, cleaning the apartment, picking up the threads of her life. Duncan comes over for tea, eats the rest of the cake, says it was he who was trying to consume her, not Peter.
Scene from the office Christmas party, segregated by department:
She looked around the room at all the women there, at the mouths opening and shutting, to talk or to eat. Here, sitting like any other group of women at an afternoon feast, they no longer had the varnish of officialdom that separated them, during regular office hours, from the vast anonymous ocean of housewives whose minds they were employed to explore. They could have been wearing housecoats and curlers.
Coming home from a hair appointment that transformed her into a creature she couldn’t recognize, she stumbled onto a group of women watching a demonstration of a vegetable grater:
Marian stopped for a minute on the outer fringe of the group. The little man made a radish-rose with yet another attachment. Several of the women turned and glanced at her in an appraising way, summing her up. Anyone with a hair-style like that, they must have been thinking, would be far too trivial to be seriously interested in graters. How long did it take to acquire that patina of lower-middle income domesticity, that weathered surface of slightly mangy fur, cloth worn thin at the cuff-edges and around buttons, scuffed leather of handbags; the tight slant of the mouth, the gauging eyes; and above all that invisible colour that was like a smell, the underpainting of musty upholstery and worn linoleum that made them in this bargain basement authentic in a way that she was not?