Alias Grace

Alias Grace is my first Margaret Atwood novel, and I liked it well enough, I suppose. Sigh. I want to fall in love with novels, but these days it doesn’t happen very often. I did enjoy reading the novel, though; it’s long, but it read quickly, and I got caught up in the story. It dealt with interesting ideas and had some good characters, and it was well-written. I liked the variety of voices it contained, including letters from several different characters. It was all good … just not something I fell in love with. I will read more Atwood, though, at least one more, because I want to read The Handmaid’s Tale. That seems like a book I should read.

Alias Grace is a historical novel, set in Canada in the mid-nineteenth century, and it tells the story of Grace, a woman convicted of murder and serving time in prison, although she is let out during the day to work as a maid, where people stare at her in fascination. Her crime was murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, who is also his mistress. She was believed to have worked in tandem with James McDermott to commit the murders, but he was hanged while there was enough doubt about Grace’s case to lead to a prison sentence.

But Simon Jordan, a young doctor out to prove himself in the as-yet-unidentified field of psychology, decides that Grace is worthy of investigation, and might just be the case to make his reputation. He is hired by some charitable church types to investigate her case and see if he can prove her innocence. So he spends many afternoons interviewing Grace, and her story as she tells it makes up the bulk of the narrative.

All this gives Atwood the chance to explore the beginnings of psychology, which she does quite well with dream sequences and free association exercises and attempts to understand rather than just condemn criminality. She also writes about the nineteenth-century fascination with spiritualism and little-understood mental phenomena: some of her characters participate in seances and some are eager to hypnotize Grace to see if they can discover her guilt or innocence through her unconscious self.

Atwood keeps the narrative structure varied; sometimes Grace tells the story in the first person, sometimes we follow Simon Jordan in a close third person, and at other times we get letters that Simon, his mother, and various other characters write. All these work together to give depth to the story, especially in the way the various perspectives clash and contradict one another. We get the letters Simon writes to his mother, which do not tell her much of what he is actually experiencing, and, more significantly, we get Simon’s and Grace’s very different accounts of their conversations as Simon tries to win her trust, and Grace resists him.

Atwood does a good job of keeping the tension up throughout the book. Grace is an enigma; even though we get her first-person narrative of the murder story, there is much about what happened that she doesn’t understand — that, or she isn’t telling us what really happened. We have no idea, really, how reliable she is. But her story of working as a maid, trying to make her way through a world very inhospitable to women unprotected as she is by a father or a husband, is interesting even if we don’t know to what extent we should trust her.

So there is a lot to enjoy and admire here. I was just hoping to love it more than I did. Other Atwood fans, is this one of her better ones, do you think?

23 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

23 responses to “Alias Grace

  1. My two favorites of hers are Cat’s Eye and the Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve read Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin and they both fell way short of the former two.

  2. I know a lot of people who love this and consider it perhaps Atwood’s best, but it’s probably the only Atwood novel I’ve read that left me unsatisfied. I’d even go so far as to say I didn’t like it much, but it was years ago and I might like it better now.

    I actually prefer Atwood contemporary realistic novels–especially The Robber Bride and Cat’s Eye–to her others. Blind Assassin is also pretty close to the top of my list. I loved Handmaid’s Tale when I first read it, but I wonder if the ethics of it would feel too simplistic to me now. She writes all different kinds of books so you might want to try a speculative one and a realistic one before giving up on her completely.

  3. Amy

    Haven’t read Alias Grace, but I did enjoy The Edible Woman when I read it in graduate school instead of writing my thesis. I suppose that could have something to do with why I enjoyed it….

  4. Interesting – can you put your finger on what the missing element was? I find it very intriguing to see what I love, like and dislike. ‘Love’ books almost always have a certain quality to the narrative voice, I think. I did enjoy this one a lot when I read it, but then, I do generally like Atwood a lot and haven’t come across one that hasn’t worked for me. Oddly enough, I suppose The Handmaid’s Tale is the one I liked least, but only because it is quite terrifying in a plausible way about the way society could end up.

  5. I remember liking Alias Grace, but perhaps not as much as Atwood’s other books. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale, but I was a teenager when I read it, and fell in love with books more easily then. I think my favourites are the earlier novels, especially The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle and The Robber Bride, although Oryx and Crake was great too. It’d be interesting to re-read all of these at some point and see if I still like them as much.

  6. Hmm… I feel like I’ve read a fair amount of Atwood, but looking at the full list of her work I haven’t gotten very far at all. Haven’t read this one, so can’t directly answer your questions. I did love The Robber Bride, Oryx and Crake, and enjoyed The Penelopiad; The Blind Assassin left me a little unfulfilled, although I appear to be in the minority in that feeling. I thought Cat’s Eye was very special in its handling of women’s relationships with one another (like The Robber Bride). But my favorites might be her earliest, The Edible Woman and Surfacing – especially the former. It seemed to hit me at just the right time in my own life, and still comes into my mind frequently even though it’s been years since I read it (which I think is one of the strongest compliments one can pay a book). So, I can’t say where I’d place Alias Grace! But I do hope you’ll look into more Atwood; I think she has a lot to offer.

  7. I enjoyed it, but what I love about Atwood are her non-fiction essays. That, for me, is where her inimitable wit and intellect shine most.

  8. I do not think I would call myself an Atwood fan, nor have I read Alias Grace, so I may be to worst person to comment here, but comment I shall! ;) Essentially, I’ve read a bunch of Atwood novels (I think I’ve read five of her novels to date), and had varying reactions to them… I find that I like certain books she’s written quite a lot (like Cat’s Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale), but have either felt apathetic or downright loathing towards other ones. So I will at least say that she’s one of those authors who inspires me to keep coming back because I never know if the next book by her I pick up will be one I will really like or one that I’ll regret picking up. I am thinking that Handmaid’s Tale is probably a fantastic place for you to go next, because it’s probably Atwood’s best book. I don’t think anyone claims Alias Grace to be her best work….

  9. I was kind of apathetic about Alias Grace as well. I am a huge Atwood fan, my favorites are The Robber Bride, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. But I have decided I need to go back and re-read all of her books in chron order to see what I think a second time round. Although I should say I did already re-read The Handmaid’s Tale and it is rightly famous both for the story and Atwood’s amazing writing ability.

  10. Your underwhelmed response here describes my reaction to most of Atwood I’ve read. I think one thing that gets me is that her feminism seems oddly out of step with my own, more about depicting “everywoman” characters who fall victim to the patriarchy without really realizing what’s going on, than creating female characters who can think things through themselves. Now that I write that, I realize that both approaches can be incredibly annoying— I don’t like characters who are just mouthpieces for an author’s philosophy, certainly. Yet somehow, the limited degree of agency and intelligence Atwood accords her characters never quite resonates with me. I don’t know if that has anything to do with your own reasons for feeling “meh” about the book, but at least you’re not alone. :-)

  11. Grr, that last comment was me, failing to keep my blogs separate. :-P

  12. Michelle — good to know! And thanks for stopping by!

    Teresa — I’m beginning to wonder if The Handmaid’s Tale is a book you need to read at the right time in order to feel the full impact, and that time may have passed for me. But we’ll see! That’s a good point about trying her various types of books. It’s definitely too soon to give up on her entirely.

    Amy — yes, all kinds of things become enjoyable when they are distractions from thesis-writing! The Edible Woman isn’t one I’ve heard much about; the title sounds intriguing!

    Litlove — I so agree about narrative voice — it’s crucial! Grace is such an enigma in this book; perhaps too much so? I felt also that the book was too long — that there wasn’t enough heft to the book to justify all those pages. I wondered if she couldn’t have gotten into those hefty Victorian-era themes more deeply.

    Karen — interesting to think of The Handmaid’s Tale as being one of those books that are best read as a teenager. I’m even more curious to read it now and see if I feel that’s true. Definitely it would be interesting to read them again and see how they hold up.

    PagesofJulia — I’ll definitely be reading more Atwood at some point. I think we already have a copy of Handmaid’s Tale in the house, so that’s a natural place to start. It’s very interesting to read your list of favorites. The Edible Woman is one I wasn’t familiar with, but lots of people are mentioning it, so it seems worth a look.

    Lilian — well, that gets my attention, since I love essays so much! I have her collection Writing With Intent on various wishlists, so hopefully I can snag a copy at some point.

    Steph — you are always welcome to comment, regardless of what you have or haven’t read :) I love authors that inspire me to keep coming back to them because I can’t figure them out. I feel that way about Scarlett Thomas. It’s fun to try new books by these authors and see if they help make sense of things.

    Thomas — I’d be very curious to see how your rereading project goes! Interesting that Alias Grace wasn’t a favorite for you. I’m so glad to hear you recommend The Handmaid’s Tale so highly!

    Emily — I’m not sure it had anything to do with my so-so response, but your point is very interesting anyway; Grace is definitely an unwitting victim of patriarchy who describes the injustices she experiences very well, but doesn’t communicate that she understands them. She is intelligent, but not really analytical about her own experience, or she doesn’t share her analysis. Perhaps that IS part of why I didn’t respond to her very strongly.

    • Ohhhhh The Edible Woman. Where to begin? When I tell people about this story they look at me like I’ve lost it, so I won’t try to tell you; if you’re looking for a plot synopsis Amazon or some such will do you just fine… I suspect my strong reaction might be based on the fact that I was in a certain relationship (which was trying to come to an end) when I read the book, that lined up nicely with the brand of crazy that the protagonist is going in the book. Did that make sense? It resonated deeply with me. This may not be true for everyone (I sincerely hope you’re not having that experience :)) but as you noted, others have spoken of it as well. There’s just always something special about that book that articulates what one is going through, especially if it’s extra angst-y.

  13. Interesting that you said you didn’t fall in love. Reading your first paragraph, it sounds like you at least had a fun fling and are considering repeating it with another Atwood novel.

    Coincidentally, I just requested a free copy of Robber Bride this very morn. It will be my first Atwood.

  14. It sounds like you admire and appreciate the novel, so I’d bet that it’s just a matter of an element of the story reaching out to you to make for that full “falling in love with a book” experience. But I don’t know which that would be for you. For me, it was Cat’s Eye. I think because I loved that story so much, I now love “what she does” with the same intensity, and it’s all muddled up together in a pretty-much-ideal bookish affair.

  15. I read this a couple of years ago and didn’t really care for it.

  16. I really like Margaret Atwood and she’s one of the few authors whose works I have read multiple times (I think I’ve read this one three times), however, I’m not a very good reader in terms of being able to quantify what makes it a good book–I can only say it was a good book for me (and it seems as though from the varied responses readers have very different responses to her work). For me, if an author can captivate me and take me out of my world into another–and then get all the other elements right (good writing, interesting characters, etc) I’m usually a pushover. I’ve always thought Atwood has always done that extremely well. Good luck with whichever book you choose next by her–and if she’s just not your cup of tea there is always another book around the corner!

  17. I’ve not read Atwood, so I won’t be of any help here, but I do know what you mean about wanting to fall in love with a book and you just don’t. You know I read a lot of mysteries, and I want to branch out into regular fiction, but as I try things here and there the stories are just dull at best, or depressing at worst…I love the sparkling with that you see in the British novels of the 30s, and maybe I should concentrate there instead of the contemporary lit I’ve tried.

    We’re looking forward to some book crawls with you and Hobgoblin soon!

  18. That should read “sparkling wit”…

  19. I love Atwood, as you know, and think Alias Grace is one of her best more conventional literary works. My favorite of hers is Surfacing, an earlier novel that follows a woman into madness as she tries to discover how her father disappeared in the wilderness. I totally understand the disappointment though of wanting so much to like an author or a book and then not falling in love.

  20. Eva

    I love Atwood, and I loved Alias Grace, but I also loved The Penelopiad, which most people seem to not like. ;) In fact, the only Atwood I’ve read so far (seven of her novels) that I didn’t love was Cat’s Eye, lol, so I guess I buck the norm!

    That being said, I’ve been disappointed in other authors/novels, so I understand the frustration. I do think she’s worth giving another go, just to see! ;)

  21. Being a very predictable reader, I’ve only read The Handmaid’s Tale. I intend to read more by Atwood but I have a feeling it’d be better if I stuck to her more sci-fi books at first. I know, I’m a coward like that. Alias Grace never really called out to me and it seems as though it’d be better for me to focus on Atwood’s other works first…

  22. It’s so interesting to read your review and the comments that follow. I am a real fan of Margaret Atwood’s work and this one, Alias Grace is really my favorite of them all. But there are so many great ones — like Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye.
    Ahh, this one I loved best.
    But to each person there are different resonating points, it’s sometimes so subjective, why we like what we do. I hope that you continue to read more of Maggie.

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