‘The Robber Bride’ by Margaret Atwood

Robber_Bride

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Digital; 576 pages; 2009.

Margaret Atwood is one of those authors I know I should read more of but never do. I read Alias Grace more than four years ago, so thought it was about time I try something else by her. I opted for The Robber Bride on the sole basis that it was chunky enough to keep me entertained on a seven-hour flight from Abu Dhabi to London Heathrow.

The story, first published in 1993, is a decidedly weird one and features one of the kookiest characters I’ve ever come across in modern fiction. Zenia (pronounced with a long e, as in seen) is a ruthless, manipulative woman, who befriends three other women — academic Tony, business woman Roz, and free-spirit Charis — living in Toronto and turns their lives upside down in more ways than one. Zenia, you see, likes attached men, but the only way she can get close to them is by sidling up to their partners and ingratiating herself.

But Zenia has done her dash with Tony, Roz and Charis, and when she is blown up “during some terrorist rampage or other in Lebanon” they heave a collective sigh of relief. But while Zenia dead is no longer a threat, she has left an indelible mark on all of them. When she is spotted, five years later, alive and well at their favourite lunch-time restaurant, they don’t know quite what to do. Should they confront her? Pretend they haven’t noticed? Hope she goes away of her own accord?

The story is divided into hefty chunks in which each character, bar Zenia, gets to tell her tale, specifically how she met Zenia, what Zenia did to her and how they react to her return from the dead.

Zenia’s presence looms large right at the beginning of the novel, but it’s never quite clear what she’s supposed to have done, or even what she looks like. There are plenty of hints suggesting she’s a trouble-maker and someone not to be trusted, but I couldn’t help wondering if she might, in fact, be a vampire, as this paragraph suggests:

Tony was the first of them to befriend Zenia; or rather, Tony was the first one to let her in, because people like Zenia can never step through your doorway, can never enter and entangle themselves in your life, unless you invite them. There has to be a recognition, an offer of hospitality, a word of greeting.

And later, towards end of novel, Roz bemoans the fact that the back-from-the-dead Zenia is looking younger than ever:

Doesn’t she ever age? thinks Roz bitterly. What kind of blood does she drink?

And while Zenia may or may not be human, there’s no doubt that she is a parasite. She looks for willing victims and sucks them dry. She befriends people and uses them for her own ends.

She’s also a compulsive liar. Among other things, she tells Tony that she is a White Russian and was a child prostitute in Paris. She tells Charis that her mother was a gypsy who was stoned to death by Romanian peasants, and later, when trying to worm her way back into Charis’s affections, she tells her that she has cancer. These are just small examples of her conniving, dishonest ways.

The story is very readable — although it’s incredibly long and could easily have lost 200 pages without sacrificing the plot. Its strength lies in characterisation. While Zenia is the stand-out, all three women are strongly drawn and believable. The depiction of their friendship, despite their very different personalities, is authentic.

But I couldn’t ignore the feminist agenda which plagues this book. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that all the men in this story are weak-willed or unfaithful, and that Zenia, the man-eater, is cut from the same cloth. Indeed, upon hearing about Zenia’s behaviour, Roz’s colleague Boyce tells her to check that she’s really a woman. “It could be a man in a dress,” he suggests.

At times the story reminded me very much of Muriel Spark’s wonderful novels. I think it was largely the darkness of the lead character, her wicked ways and the strong streak of humour which runs throughout the narrative.

And while Atwood does not allow Zenia to tell her own story, thereby depriving us of discovering her real motivations, it allows us, the reader, to determine her agenda for ourselves: was she a mean-spirited tart intent on stealing husbands, or an angel in disguise rescuing her female friends from the men that would destroy them? Only you can decide.

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18 thoughts on “‘The Robber Bride’ by Margaret Atwood

  1. Loved your post on this one – its on my TBR list. I’ve loved every Atwood book I’ve ever read, so I’m happy to see that this one sounds like it won’t disappoint. Can’t wait to read it now!

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  2. Wonderful review! Atwood is an author who I am slowly reading in her entirety (more or less) because in some odd way I find her books intellectually satisfying but also rather easy to read. Still, I do often find her “feminist agenda” tiresome and I don’t love her nearly as much as many others do. I like her at her best when she’s showing how ruthless women can be (such as in Cat’s Eye), so I do think there will be elements in this one that I enjoy.

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  3. Thanks, Steph. I hear so many people rave about Atwood, but of the two I’ve read so far I’m happy to go on the record as saying she’s very good, but she hasn’t blown me away yet.

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  4. The cover is cool, isn’t it? Of course, having read the Kindle edition, there was no cover of which to speak, but I didn’t let that stop me using this one for the purposes of this review!

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  5. Cheers, Nadia. Any other Atwood novels you could particularly recommend? I’m tempted by Cat’s Eye, only because I’ve seen a very good review of it on Savidge Reads recently.

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  6. This may very well be my favorite Atwood, though I’d need to reread The Blind Assassin to be sure. Cat’s Eye is probably the most similar to this one out of the many Atwoods that I’ve read, and it is also quite good.

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  7. I’m intrigued by the Blind Assassin, but not sure I could subject myself to another 500-plus page novel by Atwood so soon after reading this one. Nice to hear another nod for Cat’s Eye.

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  8. I put Atwood right up there with Saramago in the “good authors who are creative with their plot lines” category. I enjoyed every book I read by her, even Onyx & Crane, which seems to be the black sheep. Have The Blind Assassin in the TBR and The Robber Bride to look forward to 🙂

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  9. I loved the phrase ‘mean-spirited tart’ that has really, really tickled me. I think its time I tried this again, I love Atwood and so picked this up rather excitedly and was just not bothered the first time I tried it. I think now I would be in a better place for it, especially after reading Cats Eye, in fact it sounds like Zenia could be Cordelia grown up from that novel. Its also interesting that Cordelia is a big scary force in Cats Eye, yet like Zenia in this novel you never hear the book from her persepctive. I think it ca work really well with the right author. Off to dig this one out now.

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  10. Your review of Cat’s Eye makes me want to read it when I next get around to reading an Atwood. She writes MASSIVE novels, doesn’t she? Not sure I could face another doorstopper so soon after this one, but I’ve added it to my wishlist and maybe I’ll get around to it next time I make a long-haul flight! 😉 I think you would like The Robber Bride — it covers quite dark territory but is a lot of fun at the same time.

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  11. I went through an Atwood phase several years ago, but the chunkiness of this one deterred me. I’m pretty sure I have it on my bookshelves somewhere. Your review has encouraged me to seek it out.

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  12. Thanks for the reminder, I do have a copy of the Handmaid’s Tale somewhere, although I’m slightly wary that it may be more of the same feminist agenda stuff…

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  13. You know I’m a lover of Atwood and I’d read the notes she’d make on a napkin! This one is, however, not one of my faves. I mean, it’s good, but if I had to choose my top 5 Atwoods I’d go with The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, Oryx and Crake and Moral Disorder. I think when I read it, I was quite scared of Zenia and probably didn’t agree with how some of the characters lived their lives (I was in my moral high horse stage). Zenia does come across as quite evil but over time I’ve come to the realisation that I’m glad Atwood didn’t give us her point of view. It would have made it all too simple?
    I’d like to do a re-read of all Margaret Atwood’s novels and short story collections next year in chronological order. I’ve read most of them, but have 2 or 3 that stubbornly remain unread.
    I’m glad you enjoyed The Robber Bride, Kim.
    P.S. I’d probably stick The Blind Assassin into the top 5 (cheating!). It’d probably tie for 2nd place with Alias Grace.

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  14. Thanks for your top 5 Atwoods, Kinga! I have Handmaid’s Tale in the TBR somewhere… need to dig it out. And Simon Savidge has been raving about Cat’s Eye recently, so I need to track down a copy of that I think…

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