Moral Disorder

Moral Disorder

4.3 10
by Margaret Atwood, Susan Denaker

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Atwood triumphs with these dazzling, personal stories in her first collection since Wilderness Tips.

In these ten interrelated stories Atwood traces the course of a life and also the lives intertwined with it, while evoking the drama and the humour that colour common experiences — the birth of a baby, divorce and remarriage, old age and death. With


Atwood triumphs with these dazzling, personal stories in her first collection since Wilderness Tips.

In these ten interrelated stories Atwood traces the course of a life and also the lives intertwined with it, while evoking the drama and the humour that colour common experiences — the birth of a baby, divorce and remarriage, old age and death. With settings ranging from Toronto, northern Quebec, and rural Ontario, the stories begin in the present, as a couple no longer young situate themselves in a larger world no longer safe. Then the narrative goes back in time to the forties and moves chronologically forward toward the present.

In “The Art of Cooking and Serving,” the twelve-year-old narrator does her best to accommodate the arrival of a baby sister. After she boldly declares her independence, we follow the narrator into young adulthood and then through a complex relationship. In “The Entities,” the story of two women haunted by the past unfolds. The magnificent last two stories reveal the heartbreaking old age of parents but circle back again to childhood, to complete the cycle.

By turns funny, lyrical, incisive, tragic, earthy, shocking, and deeply personal, Moral Disorder displays Atwood’s celebrated storytelling gifts and unmistakable style to their best advantage. This is vintage Atwood, writing at the height of her powers.

Editorial Reviews

Alice Truax
One doubts that Atwood herself believes in happy endings because an ending, by its very nature, can't be happy. Inevitable extinction is the private apocalypse we all face. Perhaps that's why in this collection, dedicated to her family, Atwood too has left a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest—"for anyone who might be following, trying to find her." But it isn't these clues that hold us in thrall, or even the particulars of the woman who scattered them; it's the ferocious, fecund intelligence that invented that forest and everything in it—including its wild dogs. Even as Atwood reminds us that her bad news is also our own, the tremendous imaginative power of her fiction allows us to believe that anything is possible.
—The New York Times
A. S. Byatt
Moral Disorder is a perfect title—apparently one from a novel abandoned by Atwood's husband, which fits. And the work, with its isolated tales, some in the first person, some in the third, is a perfect shape for contemplating life and death. It is like our memories: There are things that persist in refusing to be forgotten, are as clear as the day they happened, whereas all sorts of more apparently significant things vanish into dust or persist only in old newspapers and fashion magazines. A life, unlike a biography, does not unfold in a neat progression. Nor is it entirely incoherent. Each of these stories coheres round a defined patch of Nell's life, and each has its own cluster of brilliantly described and unforgettable things, which are as important as the people.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
An intriguing patchwork of poignant episodes, Atwood's latest set of stories (after The Tent) chronicles 60 years of a Canadian family, from postwar Toronto to a farm in the present. The opening piece of this novel-in-stories is set in the present and introduces Tig and Nell, married, elderly and facing an uncertain future in a world that has become foreign and hostile. From there, the book casts back to an 11-year-old Nell excitedly knitting garments for her as yet unborn sister, Lizzie, and continues to trace her adolescence and young adulthood; Nell rebels against the stern conventions of her mother's Toronto household, only to rush back home at 28 to help her family deal with Lizzie's schizophrenia. After carving out a "medium-sized niche" as a freelance book editor, Nell meets Oona, a writer, who is bored with her marriage to Tig. Oona has been searching for someone to fill "the position of second wife," and she introduces Nell to Tig. Later in life, Nell takes care of her once vital but now ravaged-by-age parents. Though the episodic approach has its disjointed moments, Atwood provides a memorable mosaic of domestic pain and the surface tension of a troubled family. (Sept. 19) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This collection of 11 interconnected short stories opens as a Canadian woman named Nell and her longtime partner, Gilbert (known as Tig), face aging together into an uncertain future. Subsequent tales go back into Nell's childhood-spent partly in the Canadian wilderness with her entomologist father-and proceeds through her adolescence and academic career, culminating in a series of teaching and editing positions. The stories also move through North American cities and lovers and Nell's relationship with Tig, his two adolescent sons, and their life on a farm. "White Horse" is a strong and evocative account of Nell's relationship with younger sister Lizzie, who is schizophrenic, and with Gladys, a white horse rescued from neglect. The final three tales, "The Entities," "The Labrador Fiasco," and "The Boys at the Lab," bring us full circle to the themes of aging and death, as witnessed by caretakers. In these reflective selections, Atwood, one of North America's most prominent and prolific authors (e.g., The Handmaid's Tale, the Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin) turns inward, as autobiographical as she has been to date. The result is alternatively humorous and heart-wrenching, occasionally sardonic and always brutally honest in the depiction of our often contorted relationships with one another, with nature, and with ourselves. Demand will be high. Recommended for all fiction and literature collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/06.]-Jenn B. Stidham, Houston Community Coll.-Northeast Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The stages of a woman's life and loves are presented in 11 elegantly linked episodes, in the Booker-winning Canadian author's latest collection. Atwood (The Tent, Jan. 2006, etc.) mingles omniscient with first-person narrative, moving backward and forward in time through nearly seven decades, to portray her (initially unnamed) sentient protagonist, a freelance journalist and sometime teacher whose eventual commitment to writing seems born of the secrets and evasions into which a lifetime of relationships and responsibilities propels her. We first meet her (in "The Bad News") as an elderly woman who lives with her longtime companion, Gilbert (nicknamed "Tig"), in a menacing imagined future shaped by environmental and political catastrophes and further imperiled by approaching "barbarians." Next, scenes from her childhood disclose complex feelings toward her somewhat distant mother and the younger sister (Lizzie) she's obliged to help raise, and-while garbed for Halloween as "The Headless Horseman"-resentment of Lizzie's increasingly irrational fears and mood swings. The agonies of being a sensitive teen and a socially challenged "brain" are beautifully captured in "My Last Duchess." Then, Nell (finally named, when Atwood shifts into omniscient narration) finds something less than happiness when the aforementioned Tig leaves his flamboyant, demanding wife Oona for her, and Nell's energies are subsumed for years in caring for him, his two sons, the infuriating Oona and, once again, her unstable, possibly schizophrenic sibling. The final stories are concerned with her aging parents' last days and the legacy of photographs, stories and memories that comprise her family's inchoate history andpoint the way toward a fulfillment perhaps implicit in the jumble of false starts and unresolved commitments that her life has hitherto been. Crisp prose, vivid detail and imagery and a rich awareness of the unity of human generations, people and animals, and Nell's own exterior and inmost selves, make this one of Atwood's most accessible and engaging works yet.
From the Publisher
The instant #1 national bestseller

“Atwood’s meticulous stories exert a powerful centrifugal force, pulling the reader into a whirl of droll cultural analysis and provocative emotional truths. Gimlet-eyed, gingery, and impishly funny, Atwood dissects the inexorable demands of family, the persistence of sexism, the siege of old age, and the complex temperaments of other species (the story about the gift horse is to die for). Shaped by a Darwinian perspective, political astuteness, autobiographical elements, and a profound trust in literature, Atwood’s stories evoke humankind’s disastrous hubris and phenomenal spirit with empathy and bemusement.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Crisp, vivid detail and imagery and a rich awareness of the unity of human generations, people and animals, and Nell’s own exterior and inmost selves, make Moral Disorder one of Atwood’s most accessible and engaging works yet.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“This snapshot collection is a study of memory, to be cherished not just as an acute portrayal of family life, with all its possibilities and failings, but for revealing a little more of Atwood’s own struggle.”
The Times

“Atwood [has an] impressive command of the art of short fiction. . . . Atwood’s approach, although minimalist, is powerful and her protagonist’s emotional history is a puzzle impatient to be unscrambled. . . . Atwood’s richly layered approach lends itself to the telling of truths. The events she sketches linger on the edge of revelations and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. The stories shift, with ease, from youth to age, from brash certainty to the moral ambiguity that defines her characters’ lives. . . . Skilfully crafted stories.”
London Free Press

“An intriguing patchwork of poignant episodes. . . . Atwood provides a memorable mosaic of domestic pain and the surface tension of a troubled family.”
Publishers Weekly

“Nuanced insights and ironies. . . . Atwood is the master of interior monologue — profound understanding is a given in Moral Disorder. . . . Beautifully intricate studies of the strange life story.”
Globe and Mail

“Vintage Atwood: slyly operatic, playfully tenebrous and a touch of sanguinary. . . .”
Globe and Mail

“Atwood does geography — emotional and physical — better than anyone. . . . Atwood is in top form as she sketches female guises and disguises: daughter, sister, lover, wife.”
Toronto Star

“This is a book that, structurally as well as thematically, invites readers to experience the orderly and disorderly beginnings, endings and in betweens of a life.”

“A model of distillation, precision, clarity and detail. . . . Within the collection's exceptional unity she explores the variety and flexibility of the short story in a manner not unlike Alice Munro’s in her longer narratives.”
The Independent

“An elegant, nearly seamless narrative about a woman whose lifetime stretches from the 1930s to the present. The collection is a treat for fans and a worthy introduction for those who have not yet had the pleasure of her company. . . . In Moral Disorder, Atwood travels deep into the expanse of memories and language built up over her writing lifetime and offers a handful of gems to illuminate our times.”
Los Angeles Times

“Margaret Atwood has always been an acute observer of women. . . . Crisp to the senses and compelling. . . . I was gripped throughout.”

“Atwood is still a master of the compelling, peculiar portrait of human behavior.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Classic Atwood. Unforgettable.”
January Magazine, Best Books of 2006

“Powerful and distinctive.”
Times Literary Supplement

“A fractured novel of particularly haunting and engaging beauty. . . .”
Books in Canada

“Margaret Atwood balances the apparently random — disorderly — events and memories against the sense we all have that a life as a whole has its own shape, possibly a destiny. . . .This tale, like all these tales, is both grim and delightful, because it is triumphantly understood and excellently written.”
— A.S. Byatt, Washington Post Book World

“Atwood at her slyest and sweetest. There really is nobody like her.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin, Guardian

“Ingenious and perceptive. . . deserves to become a quiet classic.”

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Read an Excerpt

An excerpt from “The Art of Cooking and Serving,” from Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder

I'd been told about the expectant state of my mother in May, by my father. It had made me very anxious, partly because I'd also been told that until my new baby brother or sister had arrived safely my mother would be in a dangerous condition. Something terrible might happen to her — something that might make her very ill — and it was all the more likely to happen if I myself did not pay proper attention. My father did not say what this thing was, but his gravity and terseness meant that it was a serious business.

My mother — said my father — was not supposed to sweep the floor, or carry anything heavy such as pails of water, or bend down much, or lift bulky objects. We would all have to pitch in, said my father, and do extra tasks. It would be my brother's job to mow the lawn, from now until June, when we would go up north. (Up north there was no lawn. In any case my brother wouldn't be there: he was heading off to a camp for boys, to do things with axes in the woods.) As for me, I would just have to be generally helpful. More helpful than usual, my father added in a manner that was meant to be encouraging. He himself would be helpful too, of course. But he couldn't be there all the time. He had some work to do, when we would be at what other people called the cottage but we called the island. (Cottages had iceboxes and gas generators and waterskiing, all of which we lacked.) It was necessary for him to be away, which was unfortunate, he continued. But he would not be gone for very long, and he was sure I would be up to it.

I myself was not so sure. He always thought I knew more than I knew, and that I was bigger than I was, and older, and hardier. What he mistook for calmness and competence was actually fright: that was why I stared at him in silence, nodding my head. The danger that loomed was so vague, and therefore so large — how could I even prepare for it? At the back of my mind, my feat of knitting was a sort of charm, like the fairy-tale suits of nettles mute princesses were supposed to make for their swan-shaped brothers, to turn them back into human beings. If I could only complete the full set of baby garments, the baby that was supposed to fit inside them would be conjured into the world, and thus out of my mother. Once outside, where I could see it — once it had a face — it could be dealt with. As it was, the thing was a menace.

Meet the Author

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa in 1939, and grew up in northern Quebec and Ontario, and later in Toronto. She has lived in numerous cities in Canada, the U.S., and Europe.

She is the author of more than forty books — novels, short stories, poetry, literary criticism, social history, and books for children. Atwood’s work is acclaimed internationally and has been published around the world. Her novels include The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye — both shortlisted for the Booker Prize; The Robber Bride, winner of the Trillium Book Award and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award; Alias Grace, winner of the prestigious Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy, and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; The Blind Assassin, winner of the Booker Prize and a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and Oryx and Crake, a finalist for The Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award, the Orange Prize, and the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent books of fiction are The Penelopiad, The Tent, and Moral Disorder. She is the recipient of numerous honours, such as The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence in the U.K., the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature in the U.S., Le Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and she was the first winner of the London Literary Prize. She has received honorary degrees from universities across Canada, and one from Oxford University in England.

Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson.

Brief Biography

Toronto, Ontario
Date of Birth:
November 18, 1939
Place of Birth:
Ottawa, Ontario
B.A., University of Toronto, 1961; M.A. Radcliffe, 1962; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1967

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Moral Disorder 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
RebeccaScaglione More than 1 year ago
Isn't Margaret Atwood just amazing?  I got a little behind on my Project Atwood, but I picked up Moral Disorder at the library and figured I'd just read a short story here and there. But I couldn't do that.  I ended up reading the entire book straight through, which is unusual when it's a book of short stories.  Similar to The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Moral Disorder is a book of connected short stories. The stories span decades of time, but stick with many of the same characters, who are all related.  I really enjoyed them, and feel like this is a different type of book that I haven't seen yet from Atwood.  She can do dystopian political fiction on very tough topics, she can do poetry and short stories, nonfiction, and children's books.  Now this, which is an interconnected book of short stories! I guess the question is: What CAN'T Atwood do? Thanks for reading, Rebecca @ Love at First Book
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I've never read a book by Margaret Atwood that I didn't love. She has a beautiful gift for portraying stories both vividly and eloquently. This book is no different. She flows through a woman's life durring crucial and altering moments. She captures emotions that are in some way familiar to everyone as the go through life.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Like a non-linear movie, this collection of short stories could really qualify as a novel. The main characters appear in almost all the stories. We meet them at various stages of life and we learn to care about them. Atwood's writing is descriptive and beautiful - she has a way with words.