Cat's Eye

Mass Market Paperback | March 26, 1999

byMargaret Atwood

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Cat's Eye is the story of Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who returns to Toronto, the city of her youth, for a retrospective of her art. Engulfed by vivid images of the past, she reminisces about a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal. Elaine must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a woman—but above all she must seek release from her haunting memories. Disturbing, hilarious, and compassionate, Cat's Eye is a breathtaking novel of a woman grappling with the tangled knot of her life.

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From the Publisher

Cat's Eye is the story of Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who returns to Toronto, the city of her youth, for a retrospective of her art. Engulfed by vivid images of the past, she reminisces about a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal. Ela...

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than twenty-five books, including fiction, poetry, and essays. Her most recent works include the bestselling novels Alias Grace and The Robber Bride and the collections Wilderness Tips and Good Bones and Simple Murders. She lives in Toronto.

interview with the author

Q: What about your early life might have influenced you to become a writer?

A: I grew up in the north under rather isolated circumstances, spending most of my early life in a forest with no electricity, no running water, without any radio or movies, and before television. I was read to a lot as a child. There were always books in the house, and they were my entertainment. They were what you did when it was raining, they were the escape, they were the extended family. So it was a natural step from loving books to writing them.

Q: Cat’s Eye is perceived as your most personal novel. Is there any truth to that statement?

A: In some ways, yes. Cat’s Eye draws on more semi-autobiographical elements than any of my other novels—the time period and the place, primarily. But in many other ways, it’s fiction.

Q: What would you say is the novel’s primary theme?

A: Cat’s Eye is about how girlhood traumas continue into adult life. Girls have a culture marke by secrets and shifting alliances, and these can cause a lot of distress. The girl who was your friend yesterday is not your friend today, but you don’t know why. These childhood power struggles color friendships betwen women. I’ve asked women if they fear criticism more from men or from other women. The overwhelming answer was: "From women."

Q: You now have thirty books behind you. Could you have written this novel when you were younger?

A: By middle age you have a past with a discernible shape, whereas young people are driven by the present and the future. Cat’s Eye is partly a coming-of-age novel -- midde age -- but judging from the response, it speaks to women of all ages and to men as well.

Q: Do you consider Cat’s Eye a novel that might advance your reputation as a feminist writer or one that might challenge it?

A: If by "feminist" you mean that I write about women—though not exclusively—the answer is yes. Cat’s Eye is about the underside of little girlhood and about the intricate ways adult women’s attitudes evolve from our ambiguous childhood friendships. But if you mean that I see all women as good and all men as bad, then the answer is no. Feminists haven’t attacked Cat’s Eye much; they too were little girls.

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see all books by Margaret Atwood
Format:Mass Market PaperbackDimensions:592 pages, 6.86 × 4.19 × 1.34 inPublished:March 26, 1999Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0770428231

ISBN - 13:9780770428235

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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Raw and Honest This is a novel written by one of Canada’s most prolific authors. Heralded as one of Atwood’s finest stories, Cat’s Eye takes a deep, detailed and sometimes unsettling look at the psychologically scarring passage of growing up as a female. This story spoke to my heart right away, and I was excited to think that there is actually a book that can describe the true experience of learning how other women think and trying to discover who you are. This would be a great story for any male to read to truly understand that while they grew up with a constant threat of physical abuse, women are plagued by the constant threat of psychological abuse. By effortlessly weaving the text from past to present, Atwood explores the various types of relationships women can have, whether it be between mothers and daughters, lovers or simply friends. There is much focus on the dark and deceptive friendship of our protagonist Elaine, and the antagonist, Cordelia. Cordelia is Elaine’s friend or enemy, depending on the situation. She is extremely strong, hardheaded and loves to torture Elaine, who is naïve, shy and only wants to be accepted. This combination is dangerous and Elaine pays the price. I found this account of childhood frighteningly real and I couldn’t put the novel down, as I was reliving a childhood that I know many women have encountered. Elaine is different. She’s unique and she cannot help it. But being unique and young is the worst thing you can be, and you will try anything to belong. The damage that Elaine goes through is never truly resolved and it is left up to the reader to decide if Elaine has ever gotten over it. How we deal with issues from our childhood really does effect the people that we are today. Those years are so important to our adult development, and that is why they can be so destructive and powerful. When the power shifts for Elaine in the novel, and she should be able to enjoy it, there is always something holding her back. One of my favourite quotes from this novel sums up the lessons that Elaine learns in her life. “Women collect grievances, hold grudges and change shape. They pass hard, legitimate judgments, unlike the purblind guesses of men fogged with romanticism and ignorance and bias and wish. Women know too much, they can neither be deceived nor trusted. I can understand why men are afraid of them, as they are frequently accused of being.’’
Date published: 2010-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Nothing Short of Amazing This book is incredible. Margaret Atwood has yet again managed to craft characters so real and so empathetic that the reader is simply drawn in. When she is remembering her childhood and all the petty school yard politics that went with it, the reader is there with her. We have all lived through that. And Atwood has managed to capture that perfectly. That is perhaps the shining crown on this novel, the realness of it. Every sentence, every word is placed with meaning, with intent. And what we are left with is a masterpiece.I highly recommend it! Another amazing book from the Queen of Canadian Literature.
Date published: 2008-06-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Occasioanlly Tedious, But Worth It It's a difficult novel to get started on and the ending was a little abrupt for my tastes. Outside of that, I found it a really interesting look at a Toronto that no longer exists and most people now barely remember. I also loved the impact of telling a story about how much children are affected by others, often without realizing it. Atwood tells a really interesting tale and there's many insightful gems in there that make it worth slogging through the first 100 pages.
Date published: 2008-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Great Book This is an amazing book. The writing is wonderful, the characters seem so real you feel you know them and you get a real feel for the place and time. I highly recommend this book.
Date published: 2007-11-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Atwood is a brilliant author Atwood has a rare gift: the ability to tell a story that reaches out. Most readers will be able to relate to Elaine, at given points, throughout her life. Atwood asks the questions, through Elaine, that many individuals ask themselves . . .although she has the talent for finding the perfect words.
Date published: 2005-07-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Odd, unusual, and quite different from the normal! This book was a long one, for me at least and I'm not much of a reader. At first, I really didn't like the book because it was too weird, too detailed, too confusing, but as I read on, I know there are not many books like the Cat's Eye. I think I has somehow changed me and made me think more. I belive that someone Margaret Atwood knew or even herself had to have gone through what Elaine did other wise could such a story be written with such detail and knowledge of what happened to the last inch of detail. Interesting, and unusual but not bad. Recommended for anyone who wants a challenge.
Date published: 2001-01-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Do yourself a favour This is the one I keep loaning to friends who return it with heaps of praise for Atwood. This is one of her finest (and most of her books are superb) and my personal favorite. I have read it three times and I almost never reread novels. Do yourself a favour and read this book.
Date published: 2000-12-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from great! Margaret Atwood did a great job portraying such a detailed life. She made Elaine and everything realistic, and I love being able to relate to a good book. I would recommend this to anyone!
Date published: 2000-11-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my Favorites! I love this book! I have read it three or four times all at different stages of my life. Atwood really captures what it means to be a girl, a young woman and a middle aged woman. She does so with such honesty and disclosure. She uses poetry and symbolism to impact the significance of the plot. I would suggest this book to almost anyone. Atwood is probably the greatest Canadian writer of our time.
Date published: 2000-02-02

Extra Content

Read from the Book

1.  Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backwards in time and exist in two places at once. It was my brother Stephen who told me that, when he wore his ravelling maroon sweater to study in and spent a lot of time standing on his head so that the blood would run down into his brain and nourish it. I didn’t understand what he meant, but maybe he didn’t explain it very well. He was already moving away from the imprecision of words. But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away. 2. “Stephen says time is not a line,” I say. Cordelia rolls her eyes, as I knew she would. “So?” she says. This answer pleases both of us. It puts the nature of time in its place, and also Stephen, who calls us “the teenagers,” as if he himself is not one. Cordelia and I are riding on the streetcar, going downtown, as we do on winter Saturdays. The streetcar is muggy with twice-breathed air and the smell of wool. Cordelia sits with nonchalance, nudging me with her elbow now and then, staring blankly at the other people with her grey-green eyes, opaque and glinting as metal. She can outstare anyone, and I am almost as good. We’re impervious, we scintillate, we are thirteen. We wear long wool coats with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars, and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men’s work socks inside. In our pockets are stuffed the kerchiefs our mothers make us wear but that we take off as soon as we’re out of their sight. We scorn head-coverings. Our mouths are tough, crayon-red, shiny as nails. We think we are friends. On the streetcars there are always old ladies, or we think of them as old. They’re of various kinds. Some are respectably dressed, in tailored Harris tweed coats and matching gloves and tidy no-nonsense hats with small brisk feathers jauntily at one side. Others are poorer and foreign-looking and have dark shawls wound over their heads and around their shoulders. Others are bulgy, dumpy, with clamped self-righteous mouths, their arms festooned with shopping bags; these we associate with sales, with bargain basements. Cordelia can tell cheap cloth at a glance. “Gabardine,” she says. “Ticky-tack.” Then there are the ones who have not resigned themselves, who still try for an effect of glamour. There aren’t many of these, but they stand out. They wear scarlet outfits or purple ones, and dangly earrings, and hats that look like stage props. Their slips show at the bottoms of their skirts, slips of unusual, suggestive colours. Anything other than white is suggestive. They have hair dyed strawblonde or baby-blue, or, even more startling against their papery skins, a lustreless old-fur-coat black. Their lipstick mouths are too big around their mouths, their rouge blotchy, their eyes drawn screw-jiggy around their real eyes. These are the ones most likely to talk to themselves. There’s one who says “mutton, mutton,” over and over again like a song, another who pokes at our legs with her umbrella and says “bare naked.” This is the kind we like best. They have a certain gaiety to them, a power of invention, they don’t care what people think. They have escaped, though what it is they’ve escaped from isn’t clear to us. We think that their bizarre costumes, their verbal tics, are chosen, and that when the time comes we also will be free to choose. “That’s what I’m going to be like,” says Cordelia. “Only I’m going to have a yappy Pekinese, and chase kids off my lawn. I’m going to have a shepherd’s crook.” “I’m going to have a pet iguana,” I say, “and wear nothing but cerise.” It’s a word I have recently learned. Now I think, what if they just couldn’t see what they looked like? Maybe it was as simple as that: eye problems. I’m having that trouble myself now: too close to the mirror and I’m a blur, too far back and I can’t see the details. Who knows what faces I’m making, what kind of modern art I’m drawing onto myself? Even when I’ve got the distance adjusted, I vary. I am transitional; some days I look like a worn-out thirty-five, others like a sprightly fifty. So much depends on the light, and the way you squint. I eat in pink restaurants, which are better for the skin. Yellow ones turn you yellow. I actually spend time thinking about this. Vanity is becoming a nuisance; I can see why women give it up, eventually. But I’m not ready for that yet. Lately I’ve caught myself humming out loud, or walking along the street with my mouth slightly open, drooling a little. Only a little; but it may be the thin edge of the wedge, the crack in the wall that will open, later, onto what? What vistas of shining eccentricity, or madness? There is no one I would ever tell this to, except Cordelia. But which Cordelia? The one I have conjured up, the one with the rolltop boots and the turned-up collar, or the one before, or the one after? There is never only one, of anyone. If I were to meet Cordelia again, what would I tell her about myself? The truth, or whatever would make me look good? Probably the latter. I still have that need. I haven’t seen her for a long time. I wasn’t expecting to see her. But now that I’m back here I can hardly walk down a street without a glimpse of her, turning a corner, entering a door. It goes without saying that these fragments of her – a shoulder, beige, camel’s-hair, the side of a face, the back of a leg – belong to women who, seen whole, are not Cordelia. I have no idea what she would look like now. Is she fat, have her breasts sagged, does she have little grey hairs at the corners of her mouth? Unlikely: she would pull them out. Does she wear glasses with fashionable frames, has she had her lids lifted, does she streak or tint? All of these things are possible: we’ve both reached that borderline age, that buffer zone in which it can still be believed such tricks will work if you avoid bright sunlight. I think of Cordelia examining the growing pouches under her eyes, the skin, up close, loosened and crinkled like elbows. She sighs, pats in cream, which is the right kind. Cordelia would know the right kind. She takes stock of her hands, which are shrinking a little, warping a little, as mine are. Gnarling has set in, the withering of the mouth; the outlines of dewlaps are beginning to be visible, down towards the chin, in the dark glass of subway windows. Nobody else notices these things yet, unless they look closely; but Cordelia and I are in the habit of looking closely. She drops the bath towel, which is green, a muted sea-green to match her eyes, looks over her shoulder, sees in the mirror the dog’s-neck folds of skin above the waist, the buttocks drooping like wattles, and, turning, the dried fern of hair. I think of her in a sweatsuit, sea-green as well, working out in some gym or other, sweating like a pig. I know what she would say about this, about all of this. How we giggled, with repugnance and delight, when we found the wax her older sisters used on their legs, congealed in a little pot, stuck full of bristles. The grotesqueries of the body were always of interest to her. I think of encountering her without warning. Perhaps in a worn coat and a knitted hat like a tea cosy, sitting on a curb, with two plastic bags filled with her only possessions, muttering to herself. Cordelia! Don’t you recognize me? I say. And she does, but pretends not to. She gets up and shambles away on swollen feet, old socks poking through the holes in her rubber boots, glancing back over her shoulder. There’s some satisfaction in that, more in worse things. I watch from a window, or a balcony so I can see better, as some man chases Cordelia along the sidewalk below me, catches up with her, punches her in the ribs – I can’t handle the face – throws her down. But I can’t go any farther. Better to switch to an oxygen tent. Cordelia is unconscious. I have been summoned, too late, to her hospital bedside. There are flowers, sickly-smelling, wilting in a vase, tubes going into her arms and nose, the sound of terminal breathing. I hold her hand. Her face is puffy, white, like an unbaked biscuit, with yellowish circles under the closed eyes. Her eyelids don’t flicker but there’s a faint twitching of her fingers, or do I imagine it? I sit there wondering whether to pull the tubes out of her arms, the plug out of the wall. No brain activity, the doctors say. Am I crying? And who would have summoned me? Even better: an iron lung. I’ve never seen an iron lung, but the newspapers had pictures of children in iron lungs, back when people still got polio. These pictures – the iron lung a cylinder, a gigantic sausage roll of metal, with a head sticking out one end of it, always a girl’s head, the hair flowing across the pillow, the eyes large, nocturnal – fascinated me, more than stories about children who went out on thin ice and fell through and were drowned, or children who played on the railroad tracks and had their arms and legs cut off by trains. You could get polio without knowing how or where, end up in an iron lung without knowing why. Something you breathed in or ate, or picked up from the dirty money other people had touched. You never knew.From the Trade Paperback edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. What does Margaret Atwood's novel Cat's Eye say about the nature of childhood and the development of adolescent friendship? Is there a gender-influenced difference in cruelty between boys as opposed to that expressed between girls? At what point does adolescent meanness become pathological?2. In the opening line of the novel, the narrator, artist Elaine Risley, who returns to the city of her birth for a retrospective of her painting, observes: "Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space . . . if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once." How do you interpret this statement? Why does Elaine return to Toronto and what does she hope to accomplish there? Was the trip necessary? If so, why? What role does this return play in the structure of the novel?3. Elaine is haunted by Cordelia, her "best friend" and childhood tormentor. All predators must have a motive. How did Cordelia benefit from tormenting Elaine? What weakness in Elaine made her particularly vulnerable to Cordelia? Why does Cordelia continue to play such importance in Elaine's adult life?4. Discuss the impact of the type of parenting received by Elaine, Cordelia, and their third friend, Grace. At one point Elaine's mother tells her that she does not have to be with the girls that are tormenting her. Is her mother in any way responsible for what happened to Elaine? What role do you feel parents should play in helping resolve childhood conflicts or in protecting their children?5. Early in the novel, Elaine is warned by her first new friend, Carol, not to go down into the ravine: "There might be men there." Discuss the importance of this warning, taking into account the later incident between the girls at the ravine. What does this say about our ability to apprehend danger? In which of her other novels does Atwood explore the nature of evil and its relationship to gender?6. Why do you think Elaine became an artist? What is the significance of that choice? Do artists use life experiences in ways people do not?7. In her review of Cat's Eye, Judith Thurman suggests that a connection exists between sex and childhood games. Discuss this, as well as the significance of the book's title.

Editorial Reviews

"A literary event!" — The Toronto Star"A brilliant, three-dimensional mosaic…the story of Elaine's childhood is so real and heartbreaking you want to stand up in your seat and cheer." — The Boston Sunday Globe"Nightmarish, evocative, heartbreaking." — The New York Times Book Review"The best book in a long time on female friendships…Cat's Eye is remarkable, funny, and serious, brimming with uncanny wisdom." — Cosmopolitan "No reader will fail to be moved, even to tears, by this novel. It is poignant and lingering."— Aritha van Herk, Calgary Herald"Lyrical, startling in its mastery of language, compelling in its handling of memory and forgetting, in its understanding of the ravages of the unransomed past." — London Free Press"Irresistible. . . . This book is about life for all of us."— The Times (U.K.)