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Life Before Man

3.4 of 5 stars 3.40  ·  rating details  ·  4,164 ratings  ·  239 reviews
"Margaret Atwood has always been an adventurous writer."
Elizabeth and Nate's marriage is deteriorating slowly. They each take lovers, but the man Elizabeth is seeing commits an irrevocable act....Lesje and William live together, but are ambivalent about it. Nate is becoming obsessed with Lesje, who works with Elizabeth, and as the lives of the two couples
Paperback, 361 pages
Published April 13th 1998 by Anchor Books (first published 1979)
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The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret AtwoodLife of Pi by Yann MartelAnne of Green Gables by L.M. MontgomeryWater for Elephants by Sara GruenA Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Best Canadian Literature
107th out of 839 books — 749 voters
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Canadian Fiction
102nd out of 651 books — 457 voters

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Apr 21, 2010 Tatiana rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: dedicated Atwood fans
Shelves: contemporary, 2010
The point of this novel is lost on me. Am I not sophisticated enough to understand it? Or is it just pretentiously pointless? I don't know...

At the center of "Life Before Man" is a married couple. Elizabeth is an administrative worker at a historical museum, Nate is an ex-lawyer turned wood toy maker. The two have been together for over 10 years, they have 2 children, but their marriage is a sham. Elizabeth has been through a string of lovers and encourages her husband to do the same - find love
Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood is a thoroughly disturbing read. It is beautifully written and imaginatively constructed. The prose is a delight, as are insights into character and comments on contemporary life which, in Life Before Man, happens around mid-1970s Toronto. What is disturbing about this tale of the eternal triangle, the love triangle, of course, is that these people seem to be imprisoned by the inevitable. Theirs, by the way, is less of a triangle than a dodecagon. They all seem ...more

I can see myself reading it at the first time. Confused and rather belligerent it was such a relief to read how other people (albeit imaginary) could make such a hash of their lifes. My rather manic older review made me want to pat my old self on the head and tell her everything will turn out fine.

Reading it in a much calm frame of mind and with more self confidence, I still love Atwood's writing. Only now I can see and think more of the horrible tangled mess and nuances of its destructi
This novel, set in Toronto from late 1976 to the summer of 1978, is centered around 3 people: Elizabeth & Nate Schoenhof, a married couple with 2 young daughters; and Lesje, a paleontologist more at home with dinosaurs and fossils than with most people. The Schoenhofs have been married for 10 years and find that they are not well-matched.

Elizabeth, a rather self-assured woman and museum administrator who likes to feel she can control almost any situation and exert her influence on almost an
Aug 07, 2007 Rachel rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: fans of DINOSAURS
Shelves: for-a-class
This was one of the first Atwood books I read in a major author seminar on her and I was just bowled over by how sharp it was. In this book, Atwood has immense reverence, I think, for human resilience...but none for human relationships. A very interesting naturalist bent going on, too.
Ergh. Early Atwood is such a struggle. It's too...domestic? Too "White people problems"? These characters are simply people you wouldn't want to know, let alone commit a significant chunk of time reading about. Obsessed with themselves, all they can do is navel gaze and blame everyone else for their problems. If you choose an awful (wo)man, then tolerate an awful relationship, then haven't you gotten exactly what you deserve? Or at the very least, haven't you expected to be and fulfilled a proph ...more
There's a number of thing i Just couldn't get over, which is why I ultimately gave this book a two:

1. I'm puzzled by the need for Parts... 5 of them? There wasn't really any change in theme or anything.

2. So this was the thought of a "Modern Marriage" from the mid-late 1970's? Blug! Just an open relationship in which we (the reader) grow to (kinda) sympathize with the Home-Wrecker.

3. Speaking of the Home-Wrecker, non of the character were very likable. (I even grew to dislike Lesje... the least
Vicy Cross
To be clear: the writing is beautiful, lush, lyrical and everything Margaret Atwood is famous for. Clearly the woman knows how to string a sentence together. However. The plot (if I can even call it that?) just fell flat on its face from the get-go. I just can not with these melodramatic characters. White suburban angst glorified through long, repetitive, tedious passages--each character a caricature, an absurd attempt at depth and human emotion. It was like watching a trashy soap opera. Nothing ...more
Much recommended 1979 novel. Atwood has outdone herself is the consensus.
If there are such things as "poet's novels," Margaret Atwood writes them. Each of hers has a controlling, spooking metaphor; here the central idea is that today's men and women live in an era that is without the consolations of history, in which old forms are dying out, not to reappear. So it's no accident that the women here work with remnants of the pa
It wasn't my favorite, but as the novel progressed I was able to see some of the traits and themes that Atwood develops in her later novels.

It was hard to feel sympathetic for any of the characters, but I think she accurately brings to life those characteristics within all of us that are awful. You are frustrated by Elizabeth's desire to make everyone miserable because you've probably thought to do that. You are angered that Lesje is unable to stand up for herself because you've experienced the
Jordan Matelsky
Entirely unlike anything I'd normally read. But Margaret Atwood's unsettlingly realistic way of relating the stories of the characters' lives makes me want to phone them up after I put down the book and see how they're doing.
Roxy S.
Post-break up, I was wandering through my newish neighborhood with all the usual despair, when I stumbled upon a few things that slowly lifted me up. First, a little park with signs taped to large stones, begging passersby to not taint them with graffiti. Life grows on those stones. And they were expensive. Next, a building I could tell was holy. I analyzed one end, hoping to find a hint of what exactly it was, and especially how one could enter the place. This was a refuge. A place I sought, a ...more
Nisha Panchal
This was a really depressing read. You want to shake the characters and urge them to seek therapy. Parts of them remind me of people I know, or at least the actions of people I know, while parts of their inner workings remind me of myself. Sort of a there-but-for-the-grace kind of thing. But yes, incredibly bleak and with no clear beginning, middle or end, which was disappointing for me as it is very different from Atwood's other works which I adore (Robber Bride, Handmaid's Tale, and the Maddad ...more
Mrs. Miska
Life Before Man is the story of Elizabeth, Nate, and Lesje (pronounced Lashia). Nate and Elizabeth are married, but unhappily so, and have agreed to basically live in the same house for the benefit of their two daughters and keep lovers on the side. Lesje is Nate's lover, but no fling; she is the one worth breaking up his home for. Conflict, hurt feelings, and manipulative behaviors ensue.

I admired plenty of things while reading this book. Told from the third person-omniscient point of view, the
Mary Taitt
The characters were unlikable. They were doing unlikable things. It was sad. I ended up liking it OK, but it was not one of my favorites by any means. I guess it is fairly realistic. The ending was strange, it just sort of ended without much in the way of resolution of climax. Just more of the same--which I guess is what real life is like, but one could takes portions of life and arrange them to tell a story.

3rd reading: I have read this before, twice, but I had forgotten the details. If I'd rem
Kristen Coppess
Sex-starved Canadian Palentologists sleeping with each other's spouses, commiting suicide, building models of pre-historic mammals...sound vaguely interesting. Strangely not. Atwood explores the effect each employees maternal figures played in their life choices. The characters and reactions are flawlessly believable but as the reader, I frankly didn't care. They made their beds (literally) so I don't feel for them when they face disillusionment for lying in it. I just feel bad for the parents t ...more
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Jeff Keehr
I tried to read this book when it was first published in the 70's and made a big splash. I could not get into it. I can see why I was turned off. The narrative is wooden and awkwardly omniscent. Atwood is a poet first and a novelist third or fourth. I am not surprised that she got into trouble when one of her books was called science fiction and she took great umbrage and said that science fiction was about space aliens and rocket ships. There is hardly a decent character in the entire book. Les ...more
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Rachael Eyre
I approached Life Before Man with some trepidation. I hadn't read or even heard of it before (unusual for a hardcore Atwood fan) and when I glimpsed the reviews, they weren't altogether promising.

What I found was both more and frustratingly less than expected. The story of a triangle (I hesitate to call it 'love' since the arguable lead, Elizabeth, has long since discarded that quality), it follows Elizabeth, her all but ex husband Nate and his new flame Lesje (pronounced Lashia). It ticks off a
Margaret Atwood has a clear and descriptive writing style. The sure, clipped voices of her oddly strained and constrained characters leave a taste in my mind like tannin from too bitter tea. Stringent. Astringent. I find myself wanting to shake the characters by their lapels. "What is wrong with you people?" I want to ask them, "Why are you such odd, dreamy, uncommunicating and ineffectual people?" I don't like open marriage and I don't like the characters, but am compelled to keep reading, the ...more
Andrea Ika
Imprisoned by walls of their own construction, here are three people, each in midlife, in midcrisis, forced to make choices--after the rules have changed. Elizabeth, with her controlled sensuality, her suppressed rage, is married to the wrong man. She has just lost her latest lover to suicide. Nate, her gentle, indecisive husband, is planning to leave her for Lesje, a perennial innocent who prefers dinosaurs to men. Hanging over them all is the ghost of Elizabeth's dead lover...and the dizzying ...more
Orla Hegarty
Reading this book evoked a cornucopia of emotions on a number of levels: as a child of the 70s whose parents separated multiple times in the same era; as a former native Torontonian whose haunting grounds included the same locations; and finally, as someone who is in awe of Ms. Atwood's mastery of the written word.
I love Atwood, but I am never sure what to recommend to people as an introduction. I think this book solved that issue. It is wonderful, and the most Atwood book I have read so far.

The inner dialogues are great. The rotation of reading things from Elizabeth, Nate and Lesje’s perspective is insightful. Knowing what they are all thinking and feeling adds depth to their interactions. They are all damaged, all flawed, but all sympathetic……even Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is the least likeable of the three
Here's the thing. It's Margaret Atwood. The writing? It's beautiful. It's like a dream. No one can weave language like she can. It's the only reason I kept going with the book.

But, unfortunately, Atwood told my least favorite story. Life Before Man is about self-involved suburbanites, suffering a midlife crisis and re-evaluating their choices (mainly their marriages). The stakes aren't terribly high. No one has anything to lose by making the choices they agonize over. There's not even a pay off
Blaine Morrow
Atwood delivers a difficult, almost depressing picture of bereavement, marital decay, suicide and its consequences, control and the lack thereof, and daily pathos. Delivered entirely in the third person, the novel nonetheless has three "narrators" whose lives - inner and outer - are explored over two difficult years in the lives of Elizabeth, Nate (her husband), and Lesje. Elizabeth tries to maintain control over a crumbling, collapsing marriage (which she herself no longer wants to keep), Nate ...more
I agree with many of the other people here: beautiful, descriptive prose, but overall a long and boring story that is a little too heavy on the Atwoodian malaise I otherwise enjoy. It has some really funny moments that I appreciated, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone except dedicated Atwood fans.

Also, I think part of my disappointment was from the back cover description. It ends with "...and the dizzying threat of three lives careening inevitably toward the same climax". I was getting very c
Tasha Robinson
I keep reading early Margaret Atwood thinking it'll be as good as mid-to-late-career Margaret Atwood, and I keep being disappointed. I expect I'll learn, about the time I run out of early Margaret Atwood books. I'm pretty sure she isn't going to write any more books in the 1970s. This one had the same problems I've had with the other ones —plotlessness, shapelessness, a collection of characters with few redeeming facets, only one of them with any spine or sense of purpose. As a study in passivit ...more
Frances Sawaya
There were times when reading this book that I felt almost as if I were reading case histories, sort of floating above each character, watching and summarizing. Quite a different use of Atwood language from "Surfacing" with its poetic flow of fiction. There were few times when Atwood flipped words/phrases as part of stories. "She flips through the racks, looking for something hat might become her, something she might become." Wish there had been more of those.
Terrific metaphors throughout! Poor
Randi-lee Robyn
Just a quick review to explain the low rating... I found this book frustrating in that it was ALMOST tragically beautiful. The characters and the story had moments where I really felt the beauty of Atwood's writing, but more often than that I found the plot and characters irritating in their abandonment of life. I got a feeling they were all seeking love while afraid of it at the same time; this is what I found tragically beautiful. That said, no one every really did much about it, except maybe ...more
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FABClub (Female A...: Life Before Man group discussion 14 10 May 30, 2015 07:28AM  
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Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.

Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, childr
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“I wish I didn't have to think about you. You wanted to impress me; well, I'm not impressed, I'm disgusted...You wanted to make damn good and sure I'd never be able to turn over in bed again without feeling that body beside me, not there but tangible, like a leg that's been cut off. Gone but the place still hurts.” 60 likes
“They meet in church basements and offer bandages to those wounded by the shrapnel of exploding families.” 3 likes
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