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Alias Grace
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GROUP READS > May FICTION selection ALIAS GRACE

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message 1: by El (last edited May 01, 2018 04:56AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

El | 756 comments Mod
We will read Margaret Atwood's 1996 historical fiction, Alias Grace, for the month of May.

Has anyone read this before or will be reading it this month? I took a Margaret Atwood course in college and read this at that time, but it was a while back so it deserves a re-read now if I can find my copy. I watched the CBC miniseries via Netflix too not that long ago which has contributed to me wanting to read it again now.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this one! I liked it a lot in college; I'm curious to see what I think of it now.


message 2: by Outis (new)

Outis Hey, it's a CBC miniseries! Atwood not being a big fan of US imperialism, this feels like an appropriate nitpick.
I'm curious about the biggest differences between the book and the adaptation. It felt very bookish (pomo specifically) compared to adaptations of other books and I wonder if that's because it's unusually faithful.


message 3: by El (new) - rated it 4 stars

El | 756 comments Mod
Thanks for the correction, Outis! I edited my original post.


message 4: by El (new) - rated it 4 stars

El | 756 comments Mod
I managed to find my copy (amazing!) and started it right before bed last night. This is a longer book than I remembered, but it also reads more quickly than I thought. Just with my morning commute, I'm already 60 pages into it.

Revisiting this book is going to be fun, I can feel it.

I know Atwood isn't for everyone, but I am always impressed by the ways she often drops statements about how women are viewed by society. In this case, Grace reflects on the word murderess, and how, basically, dainty that sounds, whereas the word murderer is so hard in comparison. People are interested in murderesses, probably because it appeals to the stereotypical idea that women are inherently good and cannot possibly be capable of murder.

There's also a great image of women walking and their little shoes poking out from beneath the "cage" of their crinoline hoops. First of all, I think there's a similar image in The Handmaid's Tale, which doesn't bother me because this may be one of those things that follows Atwood throughout her writing, an image that "haunts" her. Secondly, there's the reflection on the crinolines themselves:
There were no wire crinolines when I was first brought here. They were horsehair then, as the wire ones were not thought of. I have looked at them hanging in the wardrobes, when I go in to tidy and empty the slops. They are like birdcages; but what is being caged in? Legs, the legs of ladies; legs penned in so they cannot get out and go rubbing up against the gentlemen's trousers.
Fashion and dress codes aren't all that different if one really thinks about it.


Nick Imrie (nickimrie) El wrote: "Legs, the legs of ladies; legs penned in so they cannot get out and go rubbing up against the gentlemen's trousers."

This is really interesting because I'm sure there's a scene later where Lydia is sitting next to Simon on the sofa, showing him the scrapbook, and Simon is obsessing over whether he can feel her thigh rubbing against him, or if it's just fabric. And hilariously thinks to himself that of course Lydia could have no idea of the effort of pressing up against him, she must be totally innocent!


message 6: by El (new) - rated it 4 stars

El | 756 comments Mod
Nick wrote: "And hilariously thinks to himself that of course Lydia could have no idea of the effort of pressing up against him, she must be totally innocent!"

Simon is such a strange character. Since most of the story we're in Grace's mind (through her own words), in the chapters/parts where we see through Simon's mind, I feel the story takes on a different tone - as it should, since it's a different character. But what's especially interesting to me are those comments like how Lydia must be totally innocent, etc. He's made references to that kind of thing throughout (more so in the beginning, if I remember correctly - haven't seen it so much where I am now, over halfway through the book), about the innocence and genteel nature of women. Like many men (especially historically-speaking), women are on this sort of pedestal as "good girls". He objectifies women, even if not overtly, and I find his quiet ickiness somehow creepier than some of the other more direct creepy men in the book (McDermott or Kinear).

Grace is totally rocking Simon's world because, holy crap, she doesn't fit this definition of what a "good girl" is! I get this sense that he is fascinated by her but also has no idea what to do with that.

I also love how Grace messes with him too. She is coy with him, in her reaction to the various fruits and vegetables he brings her, in her responses to some of his questions, or in her comments like "if you forgive me for saying so..." when she is especially frank in his presence.


I read an article (and I'm sure there are plenty of others) that implies that the relationship Grace had with Mary Whitney was a romantic or sexual one. Anyone have any thoughts on that? And if anyone has read both this book and The Handmaid's Tale, any opinions on the similarities between Grace and Mary and then Offred (in the flashbacks, before she became Offred) and Moira?

A lot of Atwood's novels (if not all, now that I think of it) include some sort of complicated female friendship component. I love dissecting them.


Nick Imrie (nickimrie) Hmm, it hadn't occured to me that Grace and Mary might've had a romantic or sexual relationship, and thinking back over the book I can't remember anything in particular that would suggest it (but I may have just missed the nuance).
They have a very intense relationship, but I think that's quite common for teenage girls. There's a little bit of worship on Grace's part, because Mary is older and knowing, and is the first person who has ever been kind or protective of Grace.


message 8: by El (new) - rated it 4 stars

El | 756 comments Mod
I agree with the intense relationship statement. I read it mostly as Mary was a sort of "mother figure" after the death of Grace's own mother, even though Mary was only a year or so older than Grace. She was also different than any girl or woman Grace had ever encountered, and that can be a truly awakening moment for a young person (and not necessarily always sexual).

But when I saw that in the article, I wondered if I had missed something too. I'm definitely open to other interpretations - I might go back through after this reading to see if I can identify any other clues that might make me feel differently.


Nick Imrie (nickimrie) Yes, I was thinking about re-reading as well. The more I think it over. The more I think that Grace is definitely an unreliable narrator and there's a lot there I might've missed. I've been holding off reading any other reviews or essays on it until I've done my re-read - but if you have a link to the article, I'd be interested to see what caused the author to see it as lesbian.


message 10: by Nick (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nick Imrie (nickimrie) The concept of 'innocence' keeps re-occuring in my mind when I think about this book. Obviously, there's the question of whether or not Grace is innocent of the murders, but also there's an ambiguity around the innocence of all the women in the book.
Just how much of a bad girl was Mary? How calculating is Lydia in pursuing Simon? Or Mrs Humphrey's determination to seduce Simon, all the while acting like she's being imposed upon? Or Nancy, how much of her sexual history was completely out of her control?


message 11: by Outis (new)

Outis Once you grant the notion of thoughtcrime, all innocence becomes suitably questionable.
And there are so many actual crimes which aren't completely out of our control...

The story sure makes a big deal out of guilt/shame, what with the quilt and all.
So who do you think is the snake?


message 12: by El (new) - rated it 4 stars

El | 756 comments Mod
Nick wrote: "Yes, I was thinking about re-reading as well. The more I think it over. The more I think that Grace is definitely an unreliable narrator and there's a lot there I might've missed. I've been holding..."

I think everyone is an unreliable narrator in some way. :)

Upon second look, the article I read was entirely about the miniseries, not the book itself. Not sure if that makes a difference, really, considering I feel the adaptation followed the book very closely. Still, the article I was referring to is this one.
Most significant among these women is Mary Whitney, objectively Grace’s closest personal relationship and subjectively, I think, her love interest.



message 13: by Nick (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nick Imrie (nickimrie) Interesting article, I don't think she's persuaded me to think of the relationship as anyway sexual, though.

Comparing the mini-series and the books are very interesting. I saw the series first, and then read the book, and I was pleasantly surprised by how faithful the series was.

One think that leapt out at me from that article though was this:
'
In one exchange, Jordan is trying to get Grace to reveal whether or not Kinnear sexually harassed her before the murders; the viewer more or less knows that he has, or at the very least attempted to, but Grace is evasive, sidestepping the question through politesse, saying “I don’t know what you mean by improper,” telling Jordan that Kinnear did “only what was usual.” The viewer knows the gut-wrenching implications of that phrase; Jordan does not.

In the mini-series he may well not know the implications, but in the book he should. Because we know from his own flashbacks that as a young man he crept into the maid's rooms to sniff their shifts, and had some kind of romantic liaison with the maid who caught him in the act. He remembers it as consensual - she was undoing his buttons - although frankly I don't trust anyone's memories in this book! But if Jordan wanted to know what 'was usual' he only need to consult his own memories about what he did. It's interesting that he doesn't make that connection.


message 14: by Nick (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nick Imrie (nickimrie) Something else that struck me reading that article was this section:

There are the blatantly and explicitly physically abusive men, of course — like Grace’s father and McDermott — but more haunting to me in some ways was the quiet hunger cloaked in niceness of men like Dr. Jordan. “Nice guys” who nonetheless get off on something deeply intrusive; who demand what Grace calls “forbidden knowledge; knowledge with a lurid glare to it; knowledge gained through a descent into the pit.”


In the book it's the other way around. This isn't Grace talking about Nice Guys - this is Dr. Jordan talking about Respectable Women.

After a time he thought he knew. It was knowledge they craved; yet they could not admit craving it, because it was forbidden knowledge - knowledge with a lurid glare to it; knowledge gained through a descent into the pit. He has been where they could never go, seen what they could never see; he has opened up women's bodies, and peered inside. [...] To be rendered unconscious; to lie exposed, without shame, at the mercy of others; to be touched, incised, plundered, remade - this is what they are thining of when they look at him, with their widening eyes and slightly parted lips.

Now I'm wishing I had a kindle version so I could search and see if Grace and Simon had exactly the same thought about the other sex, or if the miniseries gave his lines to her for some reason.



message 15: by Lucinda (new) - added it

Lucinda (dewluca) I love Atwood, so read this when it first came out. Probably won't do a re-read (too many other books in the TBR pile), but I am watching the miniseries on Netflix. In that it is clear that Grace has learned to survive by telling people what they want to hear . . . so that is consistent with the unreliable narrator comments. You're never really sure when she's "lying" and when she has created an "alternate history" because she had to to survive.

For those who are reading the book and watching the series in close proximity, I'm curious how closely they match. It's been so long since I read the book that I only know that most of the basic plot seems consistent to em . . . but my memory is not that good ...

Enjoy!


message 16: by Nick (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nick Imrie (nickimrie) Lucinda wrote: "In that it is clear that Grace has learned to survive by telling people what they want to hear . . . so that is consistent with the unreliable narrator comments. You're never really sure when she's "lying" and when she has created an "alternate history" because she had to to survive."

Yes, I think that's very true, but there's still the question of 'did she actually do it'? Lying to survive seems very morally different between a girl who got in over her head and has to lie to survive, and a girl who strangled a sexual rival and has to lie to survive!


message 17: by Lucinda (new) - added it

Lucinda (dewluca) Well as I watch, all I can think about is #MeToo . . . and all those years of people only believing the lying male perpetrators . . . and never believing women . . . and all the women who kept (and keep) silent because they know no one will believe them. Amnesia seems just another version of silence imposed by trauma.


message 18: by Nick (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nick Imrie (nickimrie) Lucinda wrote: "Well as I watch, all I can think about is #MeToo . . . and all those years of people only believing the lying male perpetrators . . . and never believing women."

Are you quite certain that Grace is telling the truth then? What I find most fascinating about the book is the carefully crafted ambiguity. Just as Dr. Jordan realises, we only have Grace's word for it, there's no-one who can confirm the truth of any of her tale - I don't just mean whether she killed Nancy, but even whether Mary Whitney was a real person!
Grace herself hints multiple times in the book that she's just trying to confuse and entertain Dr. Jordan with comments like: 'I wonder what you will make of all that' or 'I'm glad that I brighten yoru day' (I'm paraphrasing I don't have exact quotes in front of me).
I find it maddening! And it makes me a breathless admirer of Atwood's skill that she managed to balance it so nicely.


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