Book Notes: 9 stories, 9 lessons in life from Margaret Atwood
By Rae Padilla Francoeur
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“Stone Mattress: Nine Tales” By Margaret Atwood. Doubleday, 2014. 273 pages. $25.95.
No matter how amusing, preposterous or absurd her characters’ situations are, Margaret Atwood never fails to steer her people through it. There is always the soft heart of humanity waiting. And in “Stone Mattress,” a collection of nine short stories, that kind of literary target practice is Atwood’s great accomplishment.
The best farce homes in on the human condition and uncloaks it in mid-chuckle. In these nine stories, ranging from outright funny to squirmy and macabre, Atwood demonstrates her enviable chops. All we can do is sit back, put our feet up and enjoy the ride. Save time afterward for some thoughtful reflection.
When a fledging writer hits it big with a ridiculous horror novel about a detached hand pursuing the love of its life, his success tastes bitter. “The Dead Hand Loves You” is a cleverly engineered tale of four destitute students who survive college by living together in a dilapidated house and sharing expenses. When Jack can’t make his share of the rent, he bargains with his roommates. He pays a steep price. Years pass and patience wears down. He revisits his old roommates with visions of violence and encounters a series of surprising reckonings.
In the title story, “Stone Mattress,” Verna takes an Arctic cruise. She’s single after a series of marriages. And while this cruise has its share of aging singles aboard, she does not want to engage. But Verna can’t help herself. Expert in all aspects of the hunt, she sets her sites on the best of the pickings.
Note: Verna doesn’t go for married men: “Prying a spouse loose can be arduous, as she discovered via her fist husband: discarded wives stick like burrs.” It isn’t long before Verna discovers something utterly horrific about Bob, the prey she’s so easily hooked. What happens next is inevitable, for life, by now, has a certain predictable logic to it. Tit for tat. But that realization, perhaps a gift of old age, can sap the spirit.
Yes, life saps the soul. Which explains why Sam, an antiques dealer whose dealings reach beyond old furniture, risks his life as he does. Life is as stale as the air in the cupboards of the armoires he purchases. “The Freeze-Dried Groom” has Sam winning an auction for a storage unit that houses a complete and unused wedding, from the frothy white gown to the multi-tiered cake to the tuxedoed groom swaddled in plastic wrap. There is a blizzard bearing down, an unrepentant fiancé on the threshold and a hunger Sam can’t quite control.
The first three stories in the book, “Alphinland,” “Revenant” and “Dark Lady,” circle around a couple of writers who, over time, achieve large but very different kinds of success. Constance writes elaborate and complex fantasy stories that, early on, were a means to income. As time goes on, these stories grow into novels that parallel her way of thinking and behaving. She tells herself, as she looks out on a gorgeous ice storm that’s wreaking havoc, “she’s far too prone to enchantment.” Her husband has just died, which is a problem because he was the one more tethered to the practical world. Constance makes her way through her new circumstances at the same time she grapples with past heartbreak. She was once involved in a passionate affair with a poet — the other successful writer in these stories. While Constance published her fantasies, her poet-lover Gavin and his literary friends poked fun at her.
Constance leaves Gavin when she discovers him with another woman. What a surprise to find Gavin, a lifetime later, tended to by a very young and cheery wife. He’s infantilized and sour. It’s about this time that we get to know Jorrie, the “Dark Lady” that Constance found in her bed with Gavin. Jorrie and Constance, hurt early on by these events, discover just how much at Gavin’s funeral. Atwood’s clever writing and the stories’ insights, sober moments in these lively plots, lend credulity to these linked stories.
A mature and masterful Margaret Atwood gives us characters whose pasts inhabit their core. Her characters start out young, get old, have affairs, are abandoned. Wounds — subcutaneous, buried — fester over time. Peace of mind is just beyond their reach. But then they circle back, come face to face with their beginnings, confront the source of the trouble. Sometimes there’s comfort but always they find something to be learned.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.