This is the first Atwood book I've read, and I understand now why she's so well-regarded. The book is told from two perspectives - the first is Grace Marks, imprisoned for the murder of her boss and his housekeeper when she was their 16-year old maid. Her version of these events has always conflicted with that of the other murderer, who was hanged for the crime. The second perspective is Dr Simon Jordan, the psychologist studying her. He's not so much interested in the truth behind the murder as in building his reputation. There's a very somnolent quality Grace's voice, a world of dream-like imagery and simple routine. Dr Jordan's voice is more energetic, tinged with frustration and impatience, like he's living the nightmare of battling enemies that just won't die.
Sometimes, with a Serious Work of Fiction like this, I wonder if authors carefully include their Symbolism, or if they just write a damn story and let somebody with an arts degree decide what it means. Given that I had half the periodic table of the elements percolating in my body when I read this book, I'm not going to embarrass myself by trying to decipher the deeper meaning of the peonies and the patchwork quilts. Besides, I think, if I had a reputation as an author of Serious Works of Fiction, I'd just repeatedly reference some random item, like a lint-roller or a kitchen timer shaped like a cheeseburger, just to see what kind of Symbolism people attach to it.
It's difficult to discuss the story itself without giving away a major plot point. So, without further ado:
BIG HONKING SPOILERS...
Was Grace possessed by the spirit of Mary Whitney, or was she just an incredibly intelligent manipulator, creating a brilliant cover-story?
I'm edging towards Grace being a master manipulator. That said, I'm not entirely sure that the truth of that murder didn't fall somewhere in the middle of 'He did it all, I'm totally innocent and I blacked out,' and 'She's a sexual predator and she put me up to it'. I wonder if she said some things in anger that she really shouldn't have to a man with a very short fuse and a desire to impress her (and a lot of other desires as well), and then couldn't handle the consequences. But, being smarter than most of the people around her (including the good doctor), and possibly inspired by the peddler who turned into a respected psychologist with just a little word-play, she made herself a path out. I'm not entirely sure if she wanted Dr Jordan to be part of that, or if she wanted to get rid of him before he figured her out. I think the fact she kept writing to him indicates the first - she did like to play with the man, just a little.
My only regret is that I read this book while very sick and was subsequently very distracted (I was later told by the doctor that I should have got my wheezing arse to the hospital, but fuck that. No harm was done and I got to stay home and read books on my recliner instead of sitting on plastic bedding in an emergency room, waiting for an available bed). So it's very likely I missed a small but significant item that would clear up all my questions. To be honest, though, I'm hoping I'm not meant to know the truth. I like some ambiguity in my stories.