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/' cwewsVL 1 SRr£ A/zas Grace, A Novel by Margaret Atwood Nan A. Tálese/Doubleday, 1996, 468 pp., $24.95 The subject of Atwood's latest novel is Grace Marks, one of the most notorious women in the scandal -hungry presses of Canada and the United States of the mid-nineteenth century. Marks was a beautiful sixteen-year-old serving woman who in 1843 was accused of helping her fellow servant, James McDermott , murder the man they worked for and his mistress. As Atwood remarks in the book's afterword, "the combination of sex, violence, and the deplorable insubordination of the lower classes was most attractive to the journalists of the day." She teUs the story from a number of angles, including Grace's own point of view and that of the young alienist (the not-so-promising name for the psychiatrists of that time) who interviews her, initially in order to study the nature of amnesia. Under the spell of Grace's straightforward , dauntlessly articulate style, the psychiatrist becomes fascinated by the story itself, and finally obsessed by the issue of whether she is guilty. If she physicaUy helped with the murders, was she in an altered state and therefore not responsible for her actions? One of the book's many virtues is that while it does not duck these issues as it winds toward a conclusion, the answers finally still depend on the perspective of the various characters—and of the reader. The novel both vividly recreates the harshness of lower-class life in Canada in the 1840s and is rife with themes. A major theme is that of sanity and insanity in crime, but the book's leitmotif is how judgment can be polluted by cultural crazes, pompous ignorance, sentimentality, personal needs and projection. While the young doctor tries to be objective and balanced in his examination of Grace, something about her eventually pulls him into a dark tumult of forbidden desires almost worthy of the Marquis de Sade. Ultimately , he, like Grace's other sup porters and condemners, reacts not to Grace and her presumed crime but to their own weU-conditioned fantasies of what she represents, just as she deftly plays up to those fantasies . What all comes out in the wash, however, is not simple relativism , as the reader of this fine book will discover. Despite the complexity and seriousness of her themes, Atwood manages not to tie her story to the anvil of Serious Purpose. She does 284 · The Missouri Review so by providing the traditional elements of a walloping good read— suspense, mystery, titillation, a fully created but never ponderous historical milieu, and a naturally flowing text that could serve as a model for any young novelist. My only quarrel with Alias Grace is trivial—that it is divided into too many "books," complete with complicated prologues , which seem pretentious. More to the point, however, is that this novel confirms that Margaret Atwood has flowered into a prolific and serious novelist of the best sort—one who entertains and instructs . (SM) Another You by Ann Beattie Vintage, 1996, 323 pp., $12 (paper) By all rights, Beattie's turf—the dysfunctional lives of upper-middleclass Eastern baby boomers—should bore us to tears by now. If we're stül caught up in her novels, it's because of her unflagging gift for spinning the straw of domestic malaise into fictional gold. Marshall and Sonja Lockard are forty-something, settled, childless. Marshall is an English professor, Sonja a successful realtor. But trouble is already nascent in this seemingly mundane paradise. Marshall's stepmother, Evie, is failing in a nursing home, and Marshall refuses to take responsibility. Sonja and her boss, Tony, have taken to romping naked through empty houses; and MarshaU is the chosen confidant of a female student, Cheryl Lanier, who unloads on him her distressing problem: a friend is suicidal because one of her professors, an anonymous colleague of Marshall's, took the also-unnamed friend on a weekend trip and forced her to engage in bondage games. Will Marshall, shocked but intrigued by Cheryl's story, and flattered by her attention, launch an affair with her? Will he find...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 184-200
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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