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How I Came to Be

Seeing Lit Kitten’s mention of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye jolted me. It’s been a long time since I read that book, so long I couldn’t recall a word of it. Still, I can’t say I’d be the person I am today (or the writer, which for me has become the same thing) if I hadn’t found that book at age 14.

But why? Maybe it was the first “real” contemporary book I read. I might have found it to be so exhileratingly different from the endless Sweet Valley High books people thought I still liked at that age. I’m not sure anymore. I haven’t reread the book since I was 14.

So, curiosity led me to search my bookshelves for my copy of Cat’s Eye. And by bookshelves I mean stack upon stack of books, double-piled on shelves, stacked on utility shelves three layers deep, a wall of books on the (nonworking) fireplace mantel, books on the floor, books in the closet, books under the couch, and books holding up other books to form little book sculptures, wobbly and easy to tip over, which I am guilty of doing, often. This apartment is just not big enough to hold all our books.

The searching took some time. I knew the copy of Cat’s Eye that I had was blue. I knew its small size, could feel it in my hands. I found Anna Karenina (another book I want to reread). Then something called me to the corner of the bedroom, and there, atop the mantel I found a small airport-size version of Cat’s Eye wedged in under some old Tolkiens. Its pages had gone yellow, and feel brittle, like if I turn one too quickly I’ll tear it in half. The cover is creased and a strange woman’s name is written inside—I have no idea who she could be. This book was my mother’s. I stole it from her bookshelf, as I have many other books. We lived, at the time I became a voracious reader, on a mountain—no bookstores, or even libraries nearby. My parents worked far away, and when I was left home alone at the top of that mountain, I was alone, literally. My company was the books on my parents’ shelves. My stepfather had a collection of Stephen King. There were encyclopedias. There was The Joy of Sex. There were the Clan of the Cave Bears. There was The Satanic Verses. There were my mother’s classic hard-bound Brontes, but the books were her great aunt’s and too delicate to read. Then I discovered her paperbacks: Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Doris Lessing, Erica Jong. Some were over my head—but there was one book especially that I connected with, and it was Cat’s Eye, and I think it was because so much of the story takes place in childhood. I didn’t know someone could write a modern book about a girl. A girl like me, maybe. And thus, might I, someday, be able to write a book about someone like myself?

So, here I am with this book back in my hands, and I’m curious, if I read it today for the first time, would I connect with it as I did then? Will I love it now, if I read it again? Are the books that changed you better left remembered? I can’t be sure.

I am on chapter 5. The pages smell like my old house. The type is very small, so I have to hold the book close up to my face until the pages seem to swallow me. No corners are turned down, though I am a fiend at turning down page corners, and I think it’s because I swiped the book from my mom and may have been trying to be careful with it. I’m obviously no longer careful with my books—they are shoved together in a way that might make some readers shudder—but there’s a part of me that’s disappointed I didn’t leave any clues about what I may have been thinking when I read it those many years ago. Inside the pages of Anna Karenina I found a lipstick imprint that I easily recognize as my own. Nice. Inside Cat’s Eye? Nothing, except for the illegible scrawl of a stranger’s name.

I will have to read it all the way through to find out what I saw in it. I’m excited. It’s a little like going back in time…

4 thoughts on “How I Came to Be

  1. I have a couple of Atwood books on my shelves that I haven’t read. I don’t have “Cat’s Eye”, I do have “Surfacing” and “The Handmaids Tale”. I have read some of her poetry, which I quite liked.

  2. I loved this post about going back and looking for a once-loved book. Funnily enough, when I read LK’s post, I also could not remember anything about “Cat’s Eye”. Perhaps I should reread it too.

    And I bought Anna Karenina yesterday! The first pages have me hooked. It is quite, quite perfect.

  3. Oh, this is beautiful, just wonderful. I had a real insight about Cat’s Eye — which I will post about in the next few days.

    Maybe the reason Cat’s Eye didn’t have recall value is because of the very loose plot — dare I say nonplot (don’t want to imply that Ms. Atwood didn’t have a plan!) — that sort of left me with my handful of jewels.

    Such great thought-fodder..thanks…

  4. I too would list Cat’s Eye as one of my early influences and also went back and reread it a few years ago. To my delight it stood up to time, and I found that the language dazzled me as much as it did when I was in high school. Thanks for the reminder!

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