Reviewed by Ambrea
In Moral Disorder, Margaret Atwood creates a series of interconnected stories that lead Nell through her life from childhood to adolescence and beyond. It weaves together the stories of siblings, parents and children, teachers and friends, and even pets as Nell grows and learns and connects with a larger world. It begins simply enough with “The Bad News” and continues through a life with twists and turns and unexpected journeys.
First of all, I have to admit that Margaret Atwood is a wonderful writer. She made me feel things that I didn’t expect. Although I didn’t always connect with the stories in Moral Disorder, although I couldn’t always connect emotionally to Tig and Nell, I found that the stories with which I did connect moved me deeply. Like when Nell fretted over her pregnant mother and unborn sister. Or when Nell struggled to find her place in the world. Or when she suffered for Tig’s indecision, his inability to commit and his inexplicable thoughtlessness. Or when she tried to accept her mother’s decline, her father’s death, and her own steady walk into old age.
There are moments in this book which struck me with all the delicacy of an anvil. Like I said, I didn’t always feel connected to these stories, but when I did, it made an impact. It made me feel with the same breadth and depth as the characters, as if it had happened to me, which made me appreciate Atwood’s skills as an author even more.
Admittedly, I more often struggled with Moral Disorder and overcoming the disconnect I felt. Maybe, I had a problem with the collection because I just haven’t hit that point in my life in which these moments—these milestones of adulthood and life, in general— strike a chord with me; maybe, I just couldn’t connect with Nell, our narrator; or, maybe, I just didn’t quite “get it.” I don’t know. I just know I was sometimes bored and, more often than not, I didn’t like it.
I especially disliked the stories detailing how Tig and Nell met, but I think that was a personal feeling rather than any condemnation of the story or characters or pace. Stylistically speak, Atwood is wonderful. It was so easy to follow the story, to trace how Tig and Nell eventually fell in love—did they fall in love?—and to capture the individual strands of their tale, collecting them into a cohesive whole.
My problem came as it slowly dawned on me that Tig and Nell were not married; in fact, Tig remained married to another woman for weeks, months—years, actually—while actively living with Nell. I know I’m going to sound old fashioned when I say I disagreed with this arrangement; however, my reasons aren’t prudish. I couldn’t care less if Tig and Nell lived together, married or not; I didn’t even care that the relationship Nell and Tig created was essentially built on adultery—which is, as I learned from Nell, an obsolete word that no one really uses anymore and “to pronounce it [is] a social gaffe.” Rather, I was bothered (perturbed might be a better word) by how Tig refused to divorce Oona, his first wife whom the law recognized as his only wife.
Why couldn’t Tig convince his wife—who was, for all intents and purposes, his ex-wife—to have the divorce finalized? Did he still care too much for his ex-wife to push for divorce, or did he simply not care enough for Nell to get a divorce and marry her? Or was he too lazy...and, possibly, spineless? I don’t know, I couldn’t tell, but I do know that I was not a fan of their situation.
On a personal level, it strikes me as unutterably cruel and incredibly thoughtless of Tig. I mean, it obviously hurts Nell to be put second next to his ex-wife in their relationship. She lashes out, she feels an uncertainty and gloom even at the best times; she's trapped, because he refuses to move forward—he refuses to make a change, like he has promised innumerable times—and she’s suffocating, she’s wavering on a precipice that leaves her wondering if it’s worth staying at all.
As the story unraveled, I found that it hurt my heart to see things playing out between them. It made me angry, and it made me sad, and it made me sympathize with Nell much more than I expected.