The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood had been on my TBR pile for almost two years now. After reading some novels I expected to love but did not, I decided it was time for an Atwood novel. I had bought it at a local bookshop mainly because of the gorgeous cover and its wonderful price: it was a paperback, but the combination made it irresistible.
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 revolves around three midle-aged women living in Toronto in the mid-90’s. Tony, Charis and Roz are embodiments of the changes women went through during those crucial years, but they are also survivors and fighters of women’s challenges up to that date. Tony is a history professor – already a male-dominated field – whose interest lies only in war and conflicts making her a pioneer in that field. Roz is a powerful businesswoman who tries to balance following her true feelings and the constructed image of a powerful, never easy businesswoman in the city. Finally, Charis is a survivor, a new-age woman who loves nature and tries to survive in a modern and technological world. And linking them all together is the title’s Robber Bride: Zenia. As you may imagine, she was my favourite character: complex, powerful, cunning and always reinventing herself. While I compared the characters, I felt the very same admiration I felt for Rebecca when reading the novel named after her. The advantage was that Zenia is present in the other three women’s stories, so I enjoyed the parts she was featured in. The disadvantage was that I wanted to know more about her: to me, she was much more interesting than the three main characters together.
Regarding themes, as the feminist writer Atwood is, she covered the issues, challenges and benefits of being a woman in the 90s. From power struggles, to divorce, relationship problems, drugs and the economic crisis, the book could have very much have taken place in recent years. But, while reading I could not stop asking myself why Atwood would construct a novel around a cunning female character that meets every sexist description of a femme fatale: Zenia had curves, great boobs (quoting directly!) , dark, sexy hair and the power to turn men into idiots so that the fault of cheating on their partners fell only on Zenia and her powers. It did not feel feminist at all to reinforce this idea and much more when the three main characters suffering from Zenia’s evils have one thing in common: a father at fault. Sure, psychoanalysis could throw some light on this, but despite how much I like the field, I failed to see Atwood’s point.
So, The Robber Bride was a little bit of a failure for me, or maybe my expectations were too high. I really enjoyed reading about Zenia and her manipulations of the world surrounding her, almost as if she were a puppeteer or a psychopath. Maybe she was. Tony, Charis and Roz failed to catch my attention and I did not feel sympathy for them most of the time. Yes, they were survivors and no, I do not expect all female characters to be likable and worthy of my admiration, but they made some decisions I could never support: all of them want their men back even after Zenia “stole” them, as if they were puppets forced to cheat on their wives by evil Zenia. Maybe I failed to see the novel’s strengths or maybe Atwood wanted to write something slightly different. But I know I want to see how they turned the novel into a movie with Mary-Louise Parker as Zenia.