The Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast recently aired an episode titled Women of a Certain Age. Part of the show discussed how women are pushed aside as they age. No one wants to listen to the opinions of an older woman. They (we) become invisible. Some younger people think there is something creepy and sad about women who share their thoughts with the world. In looking for books with female protagonists who are older, I had a hard time finding any that weren’t about midlife crisis or featured crime solving spinsters. But then came Stone Mattress…
Margaret Atwood has written women characters from young to middle aged to elderly. Stone Mattress is heavy on the elderly. The first three stories center on the life of a successful author of fantasy novels: Constance braves an ice storm with help of her dead husband’s voice, her old boyfriend is surprised by a young student’s interest in Constance’s writing rather than his own poetry, and finally Constance heals old wounds at a funeral.
Six more stories follow this trio. In Lusus Naturea a woman is born with a genetic disease that forces her to hide from humanity. I really liked this strange little story of loneliness and desire. The Freeze Dried Groom and The Dead Hand Loves You were my least favorite. The Dead Hand Loves You focuses too heavily on a campy horror novel written by the protagonist. I never did get around to reading The Robber Bridegroom so Zenia With the Bright Red Teeth was a tad confusing. Still, I got the gist and enjoyed Atwood’s cheeky humour.
If there is a clear winner in my opinion, it’s the title story, Stone Mattress. It’s about revenge. I’m Team Verna, even if she is a murderer through neglect and her secret weapon, her sexuality. The story took me on an emotional ride. Verna is not all that she seems on the outside and when she gets a chance to get (somewhat) even, I was cheering her on. (Because it’s fiction, people!)
The last story, Torching the Dusties, is a hyperbolic example of the elderly becoming not only obsolete but unwanted. A mob of young people decide that the elderly have taken too many resources and must die. Inside a very swanky retirement home, Wilma, a woman with macular degeneration can only learn about the events happening through other people. A very frustrating situation for her. The plot to destroy the elderly seems both ridiculous and repulsive, but even Wilma concedes that the young people have a point as the residents take on a “let them eat cake” attitude during the siege.
The older characters in this collection are never props for the younger characters to learn something about themselves or impart some wisdom. If anything, the stories show that we’re never finished. We’re never too old to feel hurt, or angry, and it’s never too late to mend fences.
Atwood is as dark and funny as ever, with everything I’ve come to expect from her work, including the naughty sex bits. I hope she never changes!