Moral Disorder

I love Margaret Atwood’s… how shall I put it?… non-science-fiction-fiction. I’ve enjoyed her dystopias, too, like The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, but the books I’ve loved, the ones that have driven me to read them over and over, are books that take place in our own space and time: Cat’s Eye, for instance, and The Robber Bride, and short stories like Good Bones and Simple Murders. Even though they are often on similar themes and convey the same kinds of emotions as her futuristic novels, I find her contemporary books more compelling.

That’s why I was delighted to stumble across Moral Disorder, a book of closely-linked short stories that take place in our own familiar world. The first story introduces Nell and Tig, married and elderly, and the patchwork of thoughts and habits that make up a long-term relationship. From there, the arc moves back to the 11-year-old Nell, knitting a layette for her unexpected baby sister, Lizzie; her adolescence and rebellion; her encounter with Oona, who grooms her as a “second wife” and introduces her to Tig; her grappling with Lizzie’s schizophrenia, her stepsons’ hostility, and life on a farm; her mother’s final illness.

Atwood seems to me to cover more ground in these stories than she usually does in her novels. Most of her books that I love best deal with a relatively short period in someone’s life: childhood and adolescence, or young-womanhood, or working-womanhood. This book goes from childhood to old age, touching lightly along the way, never refraining from making you laugh or from biting you in a vulnerable place. Atwood deals with women’s roles here: what does it mean to be a wife as opposed to a partner? A mother as opposed to a stepmother? Are the words important? The stories build on each other, slowly, and the contrasts and comparisons are sometimes slow to appear. They are beautifully and sparely written, though that can sometimes make them feel a little disjointed, since there aren’t any flourishes to cover the seams.

I was so pleased to read these stories. At the end, though, I wanted even more. More about Nell, more about Lizzie, more about the farm. I wished it had been a novel — though normally I love short stories, and Atwood’s in particular. I hope she writes another contemporary novel soon. In the meantime, tide yourself over with this.

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26 Responses to Moral Disorder

  1. Kathy says:

    Would you believe I have not yet read anything by Margaret Atwood? I need to remedy that soon.

  2. I love Atwood’s “non-science-fiction fiction” best as well, although I haven’t read this one. It sounds good! I’m generally not a fan of short stories, but I tend to enjoy interlinked ones. I’ll have to give this one a try at some point, when I need an Atwood fix!

    • Jenny says:

      I just stumbled across it in the bookstore when I was looking for something to read on vacation. I didn’t even know about it. I do definitely recommend it!

  3. Sarah says:

    I’m ambivalent about Atwood overall, but loved these stories and like yourself Jenny, was left wanting more. Its focus on the various stages of Nell’s life reminded me of Alice Munroe, which from me is very high praise!

    I have Cat’s Eye in the TBR pile and if it’s of comparable quality must read it soon.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I agree with you about the Munro comparison. I thought of the same thing while I was reading it — quite similar to some of the stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. Cat’s Eye is my favorite of hers — tell me what you think when you read it.

  4. bookssnob says:

    I’ve just finished reading Alias Grace, and have also very recently read Lady Oracle and The Handmaid’s Tale – I’ve got a real thirst for Atwood at the moment! I’ve read several of her books, and I think she is a superb novelist. However, I’ve never tried her with short stories. This review has intrigued me, and I’ll look out for this volume – though perhaps I’ll wait until I’ve read Cat’s Eye and Oryx and Crake, both of which are still on my TBR pile!

    • Jenny says:

      Try Good Bones and Simple Murders, a real favorite of mine. I think she also came out recently with another book of stories called The Tent. But Cat’s Eye is my favorite. I’ve even taught it.

  5. Stefanie says:

    I am with, I love Atwood’s scifi writing but books like Alias Grace and Surfacing are the ones I love most. And her short stories. Moral Disorder is a good one and Atwood never ceases to amaze me with what she can do in a short story.

    • Jenny says:

      Alias Grace is the only book of Atwood’s I wasn’t able to get along with. I should try it again; it was probably my mood.

  6. JoAnn says:

    This is going on my wish list right away! My favorite Atwood’s have been Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride, and I’m a big fan of short stories. Sounds like I’d love Moral Disorder.

  7. While I haven’t read this collection, if you enjoy Atwood’s handle on contemporary life, I highly recommend The Blind Assassin– it’s very well-done. I adore the way she can sucker punch the reader with very simple truths.

  8. Jeane says:

    I have only read a few Atwood books, and some I felt kind of indifferent towards. I wonder if I’d like her short stories, it sounds like they’re more intense in a way.

  9. Emily says:

    Wow, I’ve never even heard of this book! I, too, am a greater fan of her non-science-fiction; the only book I’ve really loved by her was The Blind Assassin (which, true, did INVOLVE science fiction, but within a realistic setting). Maybe I’ll have to look up Moral Disorder (which I think is a great title, by the way). Thanks for the tip!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, good, I thought I might be the only one this title passed by! The title she borrowed from her husband, who was writing a novel by this title in 1996 when he decided to stop writing novels. So it seems apt. Have you read Cat’s Eye? That one is my favorite.

  10. Jenny says:

    Someone told me the other day that she’s found that although people who like Atwood like The Handmaid’s Tale, it is often the case that people will like only The Handmaid’s Tale out of everything Atwood has ever written. When I couldn’t finish Alias Grace, I became afraid that that’s the case for me. But I’ll have to try this one, and see how I feel about her other (mainstream?) fiction.

    It’s good to know, by the way, I’m not the only one who struggled with Alias Grace. I desperately wanted to like it, and I didn’t dislike it exactly, but I found myself halfway through and still not engaged, so I gave up.

    • Jenny says:

      I am not surprised that there are people who only like The Handmaid’s Tale, because it’s quite different from all her other stuff (despite its being a dystopia like Oryx and Crake, it’s on a very different topic and from a very different point of view.)

      I might try Alias Grace again. But some of Atwood’s early stuff was also not as appealing to me, so if I were you I’d try Cat’s Eye (my own favorite) and see how you like it.

  11. Iris says:

    I haven’t read anything by Atwood yet *hides*.

    • Jenny says:

      Try her if she sounds like someone you’d enjoy! Start with The Handmaid’s Tale if you like dystopias, or Cat’s Eye if you like art, or The Robber Bride if you like seeing some of the more troublesome sides of feminism (actually all three of these do that; it’s one of Atwood’s specialties.)

  12. Marie says:

    I’m SO glad to hear you loved this. I’m a huuuuge Atwood fan and like you prefer her non-science-fiction-fiction. I have this in my TBR and just need an excuse to get to it- which I think you’ve given me! Thanks for the great review.

    • Jenny says:

      I haven’t fallen in love with every one of Atwood’s novels — her early stuff is a little less appealing to me — but I think she gets better and better.

  13. christina says:

    This sounds really good. The only Atwood I’ve read has been The Handmaids Tale back in college. I’ve been meaning to read more of her.

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