The Robber Bride is a undoubtedly a fascinating story of female villainy, the machinations of a woman’s mind and human depravity. It is about three women who had been friends since university.
But, there is also a fourth woman in the story, Zenia, a miscreant towards whom the reader’s fury is directed. The men’s role in Miss Atwood’s story is ancillary, if not subordinate. The males are depicted as cheats, lazy, and dependant. They are invisible fathers, fathers like a dotted line, which has to be coloured in for their children by the women. They sleep with their arms spread out, The Royal Posture Miss Atwood calls it, as if to possess as much of the space as possible. Small things like good eggs delight them, small thing like bad eggs depress them.
With the females, on the other hand, the left hand often knows what the right hand is doing. The two halves of their brains are superimposed. They ‘pounce and grab. Some work hard. Some yell. Some hide, some march, some drink, some fib. Some bite the dust, the bullet, the hand that feeds them. Some rule the roost’ –Lorrie Moore. Tony is Antonia Fremont, a war historian, childless, and a professor at a Toronto university. She is also the author of two books. Her stronghold is her study. The male historians at the university think she’ s invading their territory, and should leave their spears, arrows, catapults, lances, swords, guns, planes and bombs alone.
However, in some way her life resembles the battles and the wars she ardently studies. Ironically though Tony is occasionally the target of cruel male jibes and resentment, her students are mostly men. Tony is the female martyr who triumphs despite the envy, mud and disease-carrying lice of war-male condescension that she sometimes finds touching. She has a man in her life called West.
Ms. Atwood introduces two other characters, Tony’s two friends, into the narrative. One belongs to Charis-or ‘the sleep walking’ Karen, before she was known as Charis. Unlike Tony, who beats the men at their own game, Charis is soft-perhaps the meekest of the three women. Her eighteen-year-old daughter, Augusta, is an unconscionable bully who often instructs Charis to straighten her shoulders, and orders her to get rid of the clutter in her kitchen.
Charis works at a place called Radiance, which sells crystals of all kinds and pendants and seashells. Her job ‘doesn’t start till ten, which gives her a long morning, time to grow slowly into her day’. She works with a psychic called Shanita, with Chinese, West Indian, Pakistani and even Scottish ancestry. Shanita’s complicated lineage symbolised the clutter in Charis’ life. Charis used to have a man in her life-the physically abusive, Billy.
The third woman in the trio of friends is Roz (Rosalind Grunwald). She is rich and the president of her of a successful women’s magazine-the WiseWomanWorld. Like her friend Tony, she is successful in a man’s world. She is a patron to many organisations and a philanthropist that sees to it that her company gives generously to many charities. Her professional commitments notwithstanding, she is a dedicated single mother of three: the twins, Erin and Paula, and the twenty-two-year-old, Larry. There was once a man in her life-the philandering Mitch.
Besides their alma mater, these three friends have one other thing in common: they’ve lost men to the charming, calculating, relentless, and unscrupulous Zenia. Mitch even killed himself because of her. She is the villain of story-the street fighter who kicks hard, low and dirty. At various times, she has weaved her way into the women’s lives and homes, and then destroyed them. She has deceptively told different versions of her past. She conjures up stories that make the three women open not only their purses, but their hearts and homes to her.
Zenia, like a fictional demonic creature, seems to have come from another world-enticing her victims to their doom. She is a Jezebel, an Iago on stilettos, an abomination whose betrayal of her friends is gratuitous. For women in relationships, she is the ultimate killing machine-waging eternal war until love between sexes has been destroyed. At some point in the story, Zenia seems to be immortal -she has died, and yet not dead. But, Zenia’s battles with the three women, which leave all of them deeply and permanently scarred, are the story.
The reader sometimes wonders whether she is real a person or fantasy. Is she a symbol of the catastrophe and darkness of life, and that of the endless wars that we must fight to preserve what is precious to us? In trying to peer and unlock the enigmatic Zenia’s mind we wonder if she suffers from extremes of jealousy, madness or is she just a irredeemable femme fatale. Miss Atwood’s touch is ever skilful showing the difficulties that come with what we glibly call love or commitment-the doubts, the fears, the sacrifices, the humiliations, the betrayals, and the triumphs.
The Robber Bride is a memorable, complex, psychological, imaginative, and a compelling read. As a parable, the story is remarkably powerful. What keeps the reader engrossed is Margaret Atwood’s consummate skill as a storyteller and the flowing narrative of the novel.