Fat Books & Thin Women


Story Sunday: Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress”
February 5, 2012, 3:04 pm
Filed under: Story Sundays | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Let’s start this post as we should start all posts even loosely connected with Margaret Atwood: !!!!Margaret Atwood!!!!!!!!!!! Her recent story, “Stone Mattress” from the December 19th issue of The New Yorker, is such a fantastic and well-plotted piece of fiction. Atwood fits in a bit of social commentary as she explores the backstory of her main character, Verna, but this is more of a fun read than a head-scratcher.

Atwood draws us in immediately, opening with “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” Verna, widowed four times, is on an Arctic cruise. This is the second time she’s taken an Arctic cruise, chosen because such a trip provides so many opportunities for covering up, for making herself look her best, as she looks for a new man:

Thanks to Aquacize and core strength training, she’s still in excellent shape for her age, or indeed for any age, at least when fully clothed and buttressed with carefully fitted underwiring. She wouldn’t want to chance a deck chair in a bikini – superficial puckering has set in, despite her best efforts – which is one reason for selecting the Arctic over, say, the Caribbean. Her face is what it is, and certainly the best that money can buy at this stage: with a little bronzer and pale eyeshadow and mascara and glimmer power and low lighting, she can finesse ten years.

As Verna makes the rounds of the cruise ship’s single male guests, she realizes that one of them is the boy who, back in the ’50s when she was just 14, date raped her and left her pregnant. In Verna’s mind, at least, this event directly led to so many others of her life: the marriages to older men, and the way she aids (doesn’t murder, mind you, not exactly) them to their deaths. Verna’s no stranger to gently helping men off into the good night, as should be obvious, but after realizing the identity of the passenger she must decide what to do about her discovery.

Atwood’s story doesn’t give us any epiphany, or even much insight into Verna’s character. (Charles May wrote a great post comparing his readings of “Stone Mattress” and Alice Munro’s “Leaving Maverly,” though we arrived at different conclusions on the worth of Atwood’s story.) But it is a fun and quick read, a perfect twenty-minute Atwood fix that offers us a woman who has devoted her life to destroying men, and then must face the man who destroyed her.

Read “Stone Mattress” online

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1 Comment

I found this story mannered and dull, little more than a creative writing class exercise. A woman, now fully in control of things, waits until the end of her life to gain bloody revenge on, apparently, all of the men who ever abused her — those who introduced her, against her will, to sex; those who bored her in marriage; and, if this story is the precursor to a novel, probably scores of others. Atwood is marvelous, and full of humor, when she creates fully realized characters with whom the reader can identify. She is preachy and dull when she dabbles in science fiction or creates flat, highly plotted characters such as the protagonist here. “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the men.”

Comment by Robert Olsen




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