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Old 11-21-2018, 07:49 PM   #46
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[...] I'm asking because I couldn't come up with a good explanation for this and ended up ascribing it to the same motivation that gave us such tedious detail about life in a Victorian house: because Atwood wanted to and not because it served a real purpose. [...]
I think I did notice the recurring branch/tree thing, and the water thing, but didn't make anything of them. They never seemed to go anywhere and I didn't have the enthusiasm to stretch myself looking.

Especially given my own reaction to the writing, it's tempting to suggest that the entire book served no real purpose. There are no valid/useful conclusions we can draw from a fictionalised version of the events, but equally the author has been constrained in what she can say through the characters because she has tried to remain bound by the real events. There was nowhere she could go with this, and so it went nowhere.

That is a bit harsh and unfair ... probably. But I do wish she had picked one side of the fence or the other - fiction or non-fiction. The compromise, while it seemed well executed to me, was never going to be satisfying. Which corresponds to your later post:

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I'm getting a little impatient with Atwood over this; I understand that she didn't want to pass judgment on Grace's innocence or guilt, in fact that's the whole story, but I think she was too prone to be suggestive without payoff. [...]
As clever as the introduction of Jeremiah was for this purpose, you are quite right: with no pay off at the end it all feels like a waste of effort, and for me this book was a big effort.
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Old 11-21-2018, 08:12 PM   #47
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I think the concept of a Victorian novel written from a 20th/21st century perspective is quite intriguing and has much to recommend it. Victorian novels are great reads in themselves and illuminating about the human condition. I cannot agree that the great themes relating to the human condition have been, or can be, done to death. Whether or not they're done successfully is a different matter.

The modern perspective is important because a novel that was just a pastiche wouldn't work, in part because of what we bring to it and in part because it would be impossible for the author successfully to immerse himself in the Victorian era to the entire exclusion of our own. The 19th century setting is important, though, and two reasons in particular occur to me. Part of it is the plottiness which requires length and which modern novels of the high-concept variety don't lend themselves to. And part of it, frankly, is the lack of technology. Railroads, steamships and a reliable post are about the extent of it; even the telegram is pushing things a bit. It's akin to writing golden age mysteries in the age of cellphones. No classic plot would stand up to that.

I have mixed feelings about "lessons" from literature. Mostly I just want a good story. Part of that is accuracy and insight into the human condition which can enrich one's understanding, but once I'm supposed to be learning something my eyes glaze over. Didacticism is to be avoided at all costs.
Insightful comments. I did not express my criticisms well. I agree that great themes relating to the "human condition" cannot be done to death objectively. Subjectively is a different matter. Perhaps I would have found more to engage me in this book had I been much younger and less widely read. Personally I simply found nothing new or interesting to me in Atwood's treatment of these themes and in the book generally.

I feel somewhat hypocritical in relation to my lessons comments, which did not come out as I intended. I have often posted that I simply want a good read, and my eyes too glaze over if I am expected to be taking lessons from a book. The point I intended to make was simply that I personally found little in this book to engage me. I found it overall a rather pointless "re-mix".

Nevertheless I finished the book. I did not dislike it, and have read far worse. But to me it was simply mediocre.

PS: @gmw. I just read your last post which expressed the points I wanted to make far better than I. I did find the whole thing pointless. And yes, perhaps it was at least partly because she tried so hard to stay on the fence. Which for me just didn't work.

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Old 11-21-2018, 08:20 PM   #48
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I think I did notice the recurring branch/tree thing, and the water thing, but didn't make anything of them. They never seemed to go anywhere and I didn't have the enthusiasm to stretch myself looking.

Especially given my own reaction to the writing, it's tempting to suggest that the entire book served no real purpose. There are no valid/useful conclusions we can draw from a fictionalised version of the events, but equally the author has been constrained in what she can say through the characters because she has tried to remain bound by the real events. There was nowhere she could go with this, and so it went nowhere.
I'm starting to feel sorry for Margaret Atwood! If you take this to its logical extreme, does any work of fiction serve a real purpose? (I'm considering this book to be fiction because that's what it is, though based on facts, rather than being a biography of Grace Marks.) For me, a work of fiction that isn't light-hearted fluff purely for entertainment, is an examination of the human condition.

I think it is reasonable to say that Atwood took the bare known facts and imagined a scenario that wasn't too far-fetched where Grace might or might not have been an active participant in one or both murders. She considered why Grace might have acted as she did if she was innocent of committing the murders, and I think the scenario is plausible. She was young, she was afraid, she couldn't see what to do to stop McDermott, and so on.

But Atwood also wrote in a way that we simply do not know for certain whether Grace was innocent or guilty, and I rather liked that.

ETA: Crossed in the post with Darryl.
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Old 11-21-2018, 10:33 PM   #49
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I'm starting to feel sorry for Margaret Atwood! If you take this to its logical extreme, does any work of fiction serve a real purpose? (I'm considering this book to be fiction because that's what it is, though based on facts, rather than being a biography of Grace Marks.) For me, a work of fiction that isn't light-hearted fluff purely for entertainment, is an examination of the human condition.

I think it is reasonable to say that Atwood took the bare known facts and imagined a scenario that wasn't too far-fetched where Grace might or might not have been an active participant in one or both murders. She considered why Grace might have acted as she did if she was innocent of committing the murders, and I think the scenario is plausible. She was young, she was afraid, she couldn't see what to do to stop McDermott, and so on.

But Atwood also wrote in a way that we simply do not know for certain whether Grace was innocent or guilty, and I rather liked that.
I certainly don't mind "The Lady or the Tiger?" aspect of Alias Grace and I think there's much to be said for literature that's open-ended. In fact, I deplore the J.K. Rowlings who seem to want to control their readers' reactions and to leave no possibility of conjecture even about future events.

But it also seems that somehow Atwood failed in whole or in part and that's what we're trying to figure out. Everyone seems to agree that the novel dragged. There also seems to be some agreement that various elements didn't advance the story line, which leaves Atwood open to the charge of pretentiousness.

I honestly don't know. The elements of this story seem like it would result in a winner, but much as I'd like to have been caught up in the story, I wasn't. Maybe it's as simple as essentially knowing the ending early on and that watching the story play out wasn't all that compelling.
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Old 11-21-2018, 11:00 PM   #50
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I'm starting to feel sorry for Margaret Atwood! [...]
Yes, I do look at my own posts sometimes and cringe a little. I always find that when I have so much trouble with a book I have a lot to say about it (and not in a good way). I'm hoping Margaret Atwood has better things to do than read me taking out my frustrations.

It's the downside of book club reading. This is a book I would have put aside as simply "not for me", but I made myself finish it in order to be able to discuss it. But the result is that I came away feeling more strongly negative about it than if I had just put it aside unfinished. And, as we've discussed before, sometimes criticism of a work seems to come out as criticism of the author. This is often unfair because we cannot know the circumstances that led to the result we are critiquing.

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If you take this to its logical extreme, does any work of fiction serve a real purpose? [...]
It's an interesting question. Certainly there are some who don't read fiction because they can't see the point. I'm not one of them, obviously.

But when a book of fiction (even if only partly fiction) fails to strike some sort of chord with me then it has failed to serve a purpose for me. I'm not so blind as to think the book itself is a failure, that it serves no purpose for anyone, because it's obvious that it has worked for others.

In general I prefer a book to be one thing or another (fiction or non-fiction) although I have found enjoyment in some exceptions: I have my father's collection of Ion L. Idriess books on the shelf (Idriess made a career out of mixing fact and fiction), and I quite enjoy most of those even though many are quite dry reading by today's standards.

And I generally prefer a book to say something definite. [...] Sorry, but that was rubbish. What I really mean to say is that I want a book to leave me feeling satisfied - even if I may sometimes have trouble articulating why I it is so. It does not always mean that I need all the pieces neatly tied off, sometimes the satisfaction comes from what is left to the reader. Satisfaction is one of those nebulous things that distinguishes "good" and "bad" books according to our own tastes. Authors cannot (always) be blamed for a lack of satisfaction, although in this situation I think Atwood must have known some people would not be happy.

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[...] I honestly don't know. The elements of this story seem like it would result in a winner, but much as I'd like to have been caught up in the story, I wasn't. Maybe it's as simple as essentially knowing the ending early on and that watching the story play out wasn't all that compelling.
I wondered that. I did seem to wake up a bit near the end, perhaps in anticipation of some freedom for the fiction to inform what had happened to to Grace after she disappeared in New York State.

I've suggested a few times that this felt almost like two books. The first 100 pages (pre Ch12) that told the story in brief using lots of different perspectives, and the 350 pages following that told the story again, but mostly from Grace and Dr Jordan. I think there should have been enough to keep us interested, even knowing the ending, but maybe it was just that 350 pages of it was too much to ask.

Last edited by gmw; 11-22-2018 at 12:48 AM. Reason: Changed my mind about a whole paragraph. Sorry about that.
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Old 11-22-2018, 12:51 AM   #51
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I'm starting to feel sorry for Margaret Atwood! If you take this to its logical extreme, does any work of fiction serve a real purpose?
Despite the fact that I did not enjoy the book, there is no doubt that Margaret Atwood is an accomplished author and her success is certainly not undeserved. You can't please everyone.

I think fiction clearly does serve a purpose for most of us, though, as gmw pointed out, there are some who don't see any purpose and therefore don't read it. Primarily I want my fiction to entertain me. To interest me. To catch and hold my attention. I read fiction for enjoyment, and for me it should serve this purpose at least.

But there are other purposes that fiction can serve. I like fiction that makes me think. This can be about ideas I have not considered, or a new approach to ideas that I have. It may challenge my existing ideas or beliefs. Fiction can often be surprisingly informative and even educational. I suspect I learnt far more about the ancient Roman republic from Colleen McCullough's excellent Roman series than I ever did in Ancient History in High School, and in a far more entertaining way. Teacher's generally teach dry facts. Fiction writers can make us see other cultures and viewpoints in a way presenting the bare facts cannot. Good Science Fiction exploring fictional societies explore aspects of our own, and prompt our thinking about some of these aspects. Even the most straight-forward adventure tales without any pretension whatsoever may give insights or at least prompt thoughts about "the human condition".

Not all purposes, of course are transparent or necessarily good. Amazon informed me today that Hugh Howey has a new anthology comprising stories set in a future we don't want, written by authors with a passion about the topic. Essentially liberal authors horrified by Trump. Some will love this, of course. Some will hate it. And some, like myself, will not be moved to read it any more than I would a book of pro-Trump stories. I'm just sick of the whole topic and as a result will probably miss out on some good stories. In Palestine, children are taught hatred with fiction. After the Satanic Verses fatwa was issued, middle eastern audiences were treated to movies where the faithful killed Salmon Rushdie in all sorts of horrific ways. Fiction is of course an essential tool of the propagandist. And also, in fact, of anyone who wants to argue a point of view, particularly on an emotional level rather than a logical one. People turn to fiction for all sorts of reasons. Validation. Escapism. Even social.

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Old 11-22-2018, 08:12 AM   #52
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In response to gmw's about preferring fact or fiction, I wonder if this book would have been more satisfying if it had been a roman à clef, suggested by the events surrounding Grace Marks without being specifically about her.

I know I get testy especially when biopics and similar works of film try to have it both ways; they rely on the audience's knowledge of the facts and imply that they presenting the "truth," when in fact there's a lot of fabrication going on. It seems inescapable these days; for just one example there's the television series The Crown which as nearly as I can tell is largely made up and absurd on the face of it. And yet people seem to think they're watching a documentary!
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Old 11-22-2018, 05:11 PM   #53
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I was of course being a tad facetious about feeling sorry for Margaret Atwood. I’m sure her reputation is not being undermined very badly by comments in NLBC.

On the mixing of fact and fiction, the real problem for me was Dr Jordan. He was necessary as someone to whom Grace told her version of events, but I think that Atwood gave him too much attention and turned him into a more important character than he should have been. Had she cut out all of his side story, I think the book would have been all the better for it.
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Old 11-22-2018, 07:19 PM   #54
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bookpossum, While I would agree Dr Jordan's presence felt too intrusive, I can sort of see the problem that Atwood faced. She needed a perspective that was independent from Grace, one that could go places and talk to people and see things without Grace's strange disconnect, but having introduced such a character into a central role it becomes necessary to elaborate so that they don't seem like a cypher. Finding the right balance would have been very difficult.

I'm also inclined to suggest that Dr Jordan was introduced to provide a male perspective on the times, and on Grace. I wasn't really impressed with his performance in this aspect either.


issybird, I think the roman à clef idea might have opened up the possibilities, and it certainly would have made the idea of the book more attractive to me. But it's possible Atwood might have written much the same book anyway, depending on what it was she had in her mind.

The only thing I know about The Crown is that Claire Foy is playing the young Queen Elizabeth II, a fact I took notice of only because Claire Foy did such an excellent job of playing Adora Belle Dearheart in the TV mini-series Going Postal. (Loved the character in the book by Terry Pratchett, so was pleased to see it so well portrayed on screen.)

But your observation about biopics is one of the reasons why I prefer fact or fiction and not mixed. The makers try to have it both ways, but from the audience perspective it might just as well be entirely fiction.
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Old 11-23-2018, 12:56 AM   #55
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I've finally finished the book! Now I have to read all the comments.
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Old 11-23-2018, 02:24 AM   #56
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Old 11-23-2018, 04:44 AM   #57
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I enjoyed this book. I read it years ago but didn't really remember much. I did struggle to get into it at first, but that may have more to do with my own state of mind at the time than the book. As usual, I enjoyed Atwood's writing style: restrained and simple, and also engaging.

I think Atwood captures well the fascination society has with women who are believed to have committed murders. Murders committed by men seem almost humdrum, unless they are extraordinary in some way. This dovetails nicely with the themes of religious panic, in which 'fallen' women are fodder for people prone to fevered paroxysms about the imminent downfall of society.

I also think that something Atwood did well is handle the story and themes in a way that makes it somewhat irrelevant if or how involved Grace in the murders. The murders are really only one part of the story.


PS: apologies for joining the discussion so late. I was ill last week.
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Old 11-23-2018, 07:02 AM   #58
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Catlady, given what we've agreed and disagreed on in the past, I've been placing little wagers with myself on how you will decide for this book. The odds on me choosing correctly aren't much better than even.


CharredScribe, always good to have another participant, another point of view, late or not. It is especially interesting to hear from someone that finds Atwood's style appealing. Style counts a great deal for me in my enjoyment of books, but regrettably Atwood's is not a voice that captures my attention. I do agree that her intention was to handle the story such that it was "somewhat irrelevant if or how involved Grace in the murders". I can see that, I just couldn't get involved in the presentation.
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Old 11-23-2018, 11:57 AM   #59
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Before reading the comments:

I liked the book, though I read it in a haphazard manner, which wasn't ideal. I say I read it, but actually I listened to it, and the narrator (Sarah Gadon) was not good. She didn't differentiate voices when the POV changed or give any cues to indicate extracts or quotes, which would have been obvious in a text version. (Plus she was prone to mispronunciations.) These things combined made me feel less strongly about the book than I might have otherwise.

Thanks for asking about my kitty, who is currently mostly OK, though we don't know what caused the problem in the first place. So the dilemma is how much testing to do looking for something that might have been an aberration, causing stress to him and to my pocketbook.
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Old 11-23-2018, 08:27 PM   #60
Catlady
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After reading the first two pages of comments:

I'm surprised that some found the book difficult to get through; it held my interest and I hated to have to keep putting it down. In the beginning I didn't quite know where it was going, but I enjoyed the journey. Even though generally I'm impatient to get to the details of a crime, I was engaged by Grace's early story and her misfortunes.

I enjoyed her caustic observations, though I did wonder if an uneducated servant girl would have the ability to express herself so easily.

Dr. Jordan was a fool, but I didn't dislike the character or the sections devoted to him; it was amusing that an educated, urbane, self-confident doctor could be so easily manipulated by both Grace and his landlady. I also liked the parallels between him and Grace.
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