Margaret Atwood Turns 81: Celebrating Canada’s Queen of Letters With the Essential Atwood Reading List
Margaret Atwood, who turns 81 on Nov. 18, told Zoomer she suspects a family member will likely bake her a birthday cake for the occasion. Photo: Tobin Grimshaw
“If you’re put on a pedestal, you’re supposed to behave yourself like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.” ― Margaret Atwood in a 2013 interview with the Telegraph.
Margaret Atwood turns 81 today (Nov. 18), a little over a week after the release of her new poetry collection, Dearly. The collection itself contains numerous verses that offer a meditation of sorts on aging — which Zoomer spoke with Atwood about in a recent interview. During that interview we also asked her if she had any specific birthday plans in store to celebrate her 81st — recognizing, of course, the limitations of celebrating safely during a pandemic.
“A cake will doubtless be produced by somebody (in her family). You don’t produce your own birthday cake. That would miss the point, right?” she laughed. “So yes, 81 — it’s a lucky number. Numerologically one and eight is nine. What could be better than nine as a number?”
She added that, “it’s not only special to me, but in many world cultures, three times three, triple three nine, um, numerologically, it means the cycle of completion and new beginnings.”
When asked for her own tips for staying as healthy and active as her as we age, her advice was simple.
“Get enough sleep. Drink lots of water. Good tips. I do a lot of gardening, which is a full physical workout. And I do a lot of walking.”
And, of course, let’s not forget reading. Keeping one’s mind in shape is every bit as important as keeping physically fit as we age.
So with that in mind — and to celebrate Canada’s Queen of Letters turning 81 — we are revisiting a list of some of Atwood’s most essential works, along with companion books by other authors who explore similar compelling themes.
The Edible Woman
Published in 1969, Atwood’s debut tells the story of Marian McAlpin, a market researcher whose carefully crafted world begins to crumble after her perfect boyfriend proposes. Suddenly unable to eat, Marian’s reality begins to slip as she unconsciously rejects the consumer-oriented world around her and society’s prescribed ideas of womanhood. In its review, Kirkus said, “This is a first novel of genuine style applied to the most ordinary circumstances. . . disconcerting, faintly ominous and moving with the greatest of ease from the expected to the unexpected.”
In June, Variety reported that the rights to The Edible Woman have been picked up by Entertainment One.
Companion Read: The Wife’s Tale by Lori Lansens
In Lori Lansen’s 2010 novel, she explores the other end of a marriage and the other extreme of eating. On the eve of her 25th wedding anniversary, Mary Gooch is waiting for her husband, Jimmy, to come home. But Mary isn’t just waiting for Jimmy; she feels she is waiting for an undefinable thing and for her life to start. Since she can remember, she has been hungry for something she can’t name or define — food is her substitute. At more than 300 pounds, Mary has tried every diet but an irresistible hunger drives her to binge. When Jimmy doesn’t show up, Mary must undertake a journey to find him — and herself.
Atwood’s sixth novel, published in 1985, really doesn’t need an introduction. Its chilling portrayal of the Republic of Gilead — a totalitarian America in which fundamentalist Christians have killed the president and Congress and imposed a puritanical theocracy — has earned Atwood the moniker of the Prophet of Dystopia.
The book won the 1985 Governor General’s Award and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987; it was also shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize. Along with the 1990 film and an opera adaptation, the recent series by Hulu is considered appointment TV.
The sequel novel The Testaments was the publishing event of this year, winning Atwood her second Booker Prize and breaking sales records in Canada and around the world.
Companion Read: The Power by Naomi Alderman
What if historical gender dynamics were suddenly flipped? In Alderman’s 2017 novel, teenage girls all over the world develop an electrostatic ability that allows them to shock and sometimes even control their victims. Females roam the countryside, maiming and killing, as Alderman writes, “because they can.”
It was one of Obama’s reads in the year it was published, and Atwood herself called it “electrifying.”
The Blind Assassin
This 2001 novel won Atwood her first Booker Prize. It begins with the mysterious death of a young woman named Laura Chase in 1945. Decades later, Laura’s sister, Iris, recounts her memories of their childhood and of the dramatic deaths that have punctuated their wealthy eccentric family’s history. The excellent narrative weaves together gothic suspense, romance and science fiction, with its intertwined chapters from the scandalous novel that made Laura famous. In its review, the New York Times praised its “virtuosic storytelling.”
Companion Read: Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt
A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which won the Booker Prize in 1990, shares many of the same metafictional concerns as The Blind Assassin but couches them in a literary mystery. In Possession, two contemporary academics uncover what seems like a secret love affair between two famous (sadly, fictional) Victorian poets. The two stories — the Victorian and the modern — are about relationships and cultural mores, but, as reflected through the poems, letters and documents, which tell significant aspects of the story, Possession is, at its heart, about the power of literature and the sheer force of words.
Atwood’s 1996 novel Alias Grace is based on a true-life murder mystery in 19th-century rural Canada. It follows Dr. Simon Jordan, an expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness, who is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. The timid maid has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress.
The book earned Atwood her third of five Booker Prize nominations and was adapted by Sarah Polley for television. The Guardian said it showed Atwood “at the height of her powers.”
Companion Read: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent’s chilling debut novel is also inspired by a real-life murder mystery. It was inspired by the last public execution in Iceland in 1829. With there being no prisons in the small country, the condemned woman had been held for the winter before her execution at a farm where she’d lived as a young girl, guarded by the farmer’s wife and daughters. Burial Rites tells the story of that winter.
The books is reportedly being adapted for the big screen, with Jennifer Lawrence playing the condemned woman.
Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake, published in 2003, launches Atwood’s celebrated Maddaddam Trilogy, which also includes The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam. The books depict a North American landscape that is ravaged by ecological disaster and inhabited by a genetically modified race of quasi-humans, the Crakers. In an interview around the book’s publication, Atwood said that almost all the strange events and transformations in the book could happen — and that some had already happened through gene splicing and other forms of bioengineering.
A series adaptation of the trilogy is in the works at Paramount Television and Anonymous Content.
Companion Read: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
When the end of the world comes, it seems to start in Toronto, during a performance of King Lear. The early pages of Station Eleven, as a plague spreads through the city, are chilling and harrowing, but it’s what comes after the end that truly dazzles in Mandel’s novel (which is being made into a TV series.) The world after the plague is a place of mystery and recovery, where questions are answered and more are uncovered.