Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:
Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride is inspired by “The Robber Bridegroom,” a wonderfully grisly tale from the Brothers Grimm in which an evil groom lures three maidens into his lair and devours them, one by one. But in her version, Atwood brilliantly recasts the monster as Zenia, a villainess of demonic proportions, and sets her loose in the lives of three friends, Tony, Charis, and Roz. All three “have lost men, spirit, money, and time to their old college acquaintance, Zenia. At various times, and in various emotional disguises, Zenia has insinuated her way into their lives and practically demolished them.
To Tony, who almost lost her husband and jeopardized her academic career, Zenia is ‘a lurking enemy commando.’ To Roz, who did lose her husband and almost her magazine, Zenia is ‘a cold and treacherous bitch.’ To Charis, who lost a boyfriend, quarts of vegetable juice and some pet chickens, Zenia is a kind of zombie, maybe ‘soulless'” (Lorrie Moore, New York Times Book Review). In love and war, illusion and deceit, Zenia’s subterranean malevolence takes us deep into her enemies’ pasts.
The Robber Bride tells the story of three accidental friends – Tony, Charis, and Roz – brought together by the destructive machinations of the beautiful and elusive Zenia. after Zenia dies, these three women continue to maintain a friendship fostered by their shared humiliation. So it was quite surprising for them when, five years after her supposed death, Zenia turned up while they were having lunch. Zenia, who is clearly very much not dead, and her sudden reappearance force Tony, Charis, and Roz to reexamine the role Zenia played in their lives.
Margaret Atwood is always readable, always smart, sometimes caustic but always witty. So why is it that I don’t have more to say about this book?
It’s not as consistent or as complex as Margaret Atwood’s other work. Then again, I read her later novels first (I was late coming in to the Atwood sect). The characters were flimsy, almost like caricatures. The dippy-hippie Charis, whose backstory actually had the most potential, was left undeveloped and instead turned into the archetypal flower child, complete with organic eggs for breakfast and yoga classes. Roz was ballsy and nouveau riche and had something to prove, and it was hard to empathize with her constantly bemoaning her too-handsome husband, her too-busy lifestyle, too-newly acquired wealth. Yawn.
The character Tony was the best-constructed of all four women. She was eccentric and contradictory and felt real; Tony’s fascination with war revealed knowledge of deception and understanding of revenge belied by her quiet, bookish appearance. Tony’s suffering when West leaves her both (!) times feels unfeigned. Tony is all about quiet suffering; feminists hate to admit it but women take back men who cheat on them all the time. Plus, Tony has the best lines and the most wit. I only wish the other characters had been created with the same attention to detail.
And what of Zenia, whose absence and the absence of the men she seduced in her wake have shaped these three women? That’s precisely it: she seemed more real when Roz, Charis, and Tony were talking about her. Her early appearances in the novel – when she was still subtly digging her claws into the the ladies’ hapless men – were far too contrived: Zenia faking she had cancer; Zenia faking being a child prostitute in Paris; and Zenia faking being a political journalist. When Zenia (kind of) admits to what she did, she’s an over-the-top villain, defiant and impenitent, even baiting the women she’s damaged with exactly why it was so easy for her to manipulate their men. (Read: it’s all about the pussy, apparently. No, seriously.)
So what did all this deconstruction lead to? I’m not quite sure, but I will say this about margaret atwood: she is a feminist who is not afraid of criticizing feminist thought, and she certainly has a better sense of humor than, say, Camille Paglia. Most importantly, she is a feminist who is compassionate, not self-righteous, and I think it’s this trait that really informs her writing, and why I still like The Robber Bride, despite it being frustrating and lesser than her other novels.