Atwood's main characters are often filled with self-doubt, and here Nell is no exception. She questions the wisdom of standing up for herself in "The Art of Cooking and Serving," and in the next story wonders if, at some level, she is the monster in her sister's personal anxiety closet. The four central stories of the collection examine Nell's relationship with her male partner, Tig, and his ex-wife and children. These unfold in the third person, creating a sense of distance from Nell for the reader -- and perhaps reflecting Nell's own distance from herself during this time in her life.
In the two final stories, Nell -- as an unnamed first-person narrator -- is caring for her aging and fading parents. Atwood captures tenderly the heartbreak and frustration that come with helping a parent face mental decline, along with the frequent returns to the past that go along with memory dysfunction. In this way, the stories come full circle as Nell revisits her childhood through her elderly parents' fading recollections.
Throughout, Atwood is at the top of her game, evoking details both of place and of Nell's internal world. The four stories told in the third person feel less satisfying somehow, simply because the character compromises herself so frequently for the sake of a relationship that seems not worth the cost. But even a less satisfying story by Atwood still shines brighter than most.
Consistently, she subverts the reader's expectations while delivering gems of barbed humor and poignant insight.