Beth Bonini's Reviews > The Robber Bride

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
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really liked it
bookshelves: 20th-century-canadian, fairy-tale-retellings, friendship

Three is always a potent number in fairy tales, and in The Robber Bridge - a twist on Grimm’s tale - the unlikely triumvirate of Tony, Charis and Roz forms after each woman is betrayed by Zenia. She befriends each woman in turn, and then she ‘steals’ their men and makes a mockery of their gifts of friendship. Zenia (whose name in Greek means ‘born of Zeus’) is alluring and mysterious; a modern ‘shape-shifter’ whose appearance has been altered and enhanced by plastic surgery. Her origins are unknown and ultimately mysterious; an accomplished liar, she alters her life story for every listener. She stages her death; she appears again; she fakes illness, only for bodily treachery to catch up with her in the end. She’s a man-eater who dumps men as soon as she conquers them. She’s intelligent, cunning and amoral. Her treachery isn’t even personal; at times she seems to steal only because she can. Is she meant to be a metaphor, a scapegoat or the dark side of the feminine? Even at the end of the novel, I didn’t know for sure - but I could probably form a credible argument for any of those explanations.

Published in 1993, in what I think of Margaret Atwood’s ‘middle period’, this realistic novel roughly follows the chronology of Atwood’s own life. Atwood was herself born in 1939, and Second World War casts a shadow over all of the characters in this novel. Unsuitable war marriages, profiteering, missing husbands, damaged mothers: these are the familial legacies of our three main characters. The four women meet, prosaically enough, in a women’s residence called McClung Hall in their university years. All four are outsiders, marked by difference, although not to the extent of being complete outcasts. They have little in common other than unhappy childhoods. They grow up to have little in common beyond the solidarity of their experience - the experience of being sucker-punched by Zenia. As middle-aged women, Roz is the mother of three and a successful, savvy business woman; Charis is an ageing hippy, gentle and fey, a gardener who is aware of the metaphysical realm; and Tony is a professor who specialises in war. Temperamentally and physically, they could not be more different; but they fill in each other’s gaps, and they are loyal to one another.

Much of the novel has to do with revealing, or perhaps unveiling, the life stories of the three women. Their childhoods, their university years, their middle age. Their loves, their losses. Atwood’s love of detail, her delight in language, and her playfulness are all key notes of the narrative. More than anything, this novel seems to be an exploration of female friendship and even some larger idea of ‘female nature’. Men of all varieties appear as minor characters, but women dominate this story. To be honest, I kept waiting for some bigger or more satisfying revelation: Who or What is Zenia? I didn’t really get that pay-off in meaning or understanding - unless it is just, to twist what Walt Whitman said, that (women) contain ‘multitudes’.
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Reading Progress

October 10, 2019 – Started Reading
October 15, 2019 – Finished Reading
October 17, 2019 – Shelved
October 17, 2019 – Shelved as: 20th-century-canadian
October 17, 2019 – Shelved as: fairy-tale-retellings
October 17, 2019 – Shelved as: friendship

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