Saturday, March 15, 2008

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Boston is about six hours from Philadelphia, but the length of the drive was no consideration when Margaret Atwood was going to read at the Harvard Bookstore Café. I carried about eight books with me, and she signed them all.

I have admired her since I read The Handmaid’s Tale when it was first published in 1983. Cat’s Eye followed in 1986 and immediately became my favorite Atwood novel. Her nostalgic, understated humor, her psychological insights impress me, and provide an immediate connection to my childhood, even though she grew up in Toronto – a whole world away from the Kensington section of Philadelphia.

This collection of short stories continues in that tradition. Atwood has written the story of Nell as a child, a young woman, and finally a senior citizen. Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction, calls the transitions between events in a story as “the mortar that holds scenes together.” What is missing is this mortar – but I do not mean that as a criticism, after all, this is a collection of short stories. Each story is a scene in Nell’s life – “spots of time” Wordsworth called them, and the transition from one to another is effortless. The humor, the nostalgia, the insights – all hallmarks of every Atwood novel I have ever read – are all here.

The last story, “The Boys at the Lab,” provides a cap to the stories as Nell reminisces with her dying mother over a series of photos from their lives. Nell seeks answers to questions only her mother has, but her mother’s memory is failing. These answers might fill in some of the gaps, but I don’t care. I am as happy with these stories as I could be. Five stars.

--Chiron, 3/13/08

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