The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the sixth book in my 2014 TBR Pile Challenge. I always enjoy Margaret Atwood's books, but I can never make myself pick them up to read. The challenge seemed like as good an excuse as any.
The story is told through the perspectives of three women. Tony Fremont is a petite history professor, Charis (whose last name is never given, to my recollection) works in a spiritual gift shop and spouts New Agey nonsense, and Roz Andrews is wealthy and owns a women's magazine. All three have been betrayed by a woman named Zenia, and it's this shared experience that holds them together. Otherwise, they have very little in common. Tony is timid and lives inside her own head. Charis is evangelical about her respect for all life, and Roz is brash and bold. Roz is also the only one who identifies as a feminist, though all three exhibit different ideals of feminism. They believe Zenia to be dead, until, over lunch, they see her walk into the restaurant.
Zenia is less a character than a force of nature. She's a chameleon, changing her looks, personality, and approach just to best insinuate herself into these women's lives to wreck them from the inside. She tells each a different story about her childhood, one that echoes each woman's own childhood trauma or resonates in some way. She lies to all three of them about where she is in her life, and she plants seeds of doubt in their own competence, as well as in how well they can trust the men in their lives.
Zenia could be argued to represent a lot of things. She could be the voice of a society that wants to punish the three women for not performing femininity. She might embody mistrust and doubt, sure killers of a relationship. I was leaning in favor of Zenia being an aspect of each of the women whose lives she ruins. On the surface, though, she's manipulative and remorseless. I recognized women I've known in Zenia, though I wouldn't flatter any of them by comparing them to her. She's an amalgam of the evil women pitted against women can do.
The narrative delves deeply into each of the three women. We get series of flashbacks for each of them that show their childhoods, how they met Zenia, how Zenia wrecked their lives, and how their present situations came about.
Interestingly, each of the women winds up in a better place because of Zenia's interference. Charis's Billy and Roz's Mitch were toxic, and the women are better off without them. Charis's grief is the catalyst for her going after an inheritance she deserves. Roz's magazine takes off with Zenia's help, and Zenia gives Roz's son the reason he needs to open up to his mother. While Tony mistrusts West after he returns from being used up by Zenia, he's more devoted than ever after the events, and she buys a lovely house in the meantime to distract herself from her grief. Not that I would argue that Zenia set out to do them any favors. That they were all better off after Zenia tore through their lives was not her goal.
I had to admire Zenia, in a way. She lies with perfect conviction, manipulates everyone around her deftly, wriggles out of consequences without even mussing her hair, and always ends up on top. She's resourceful, and always has a backup plan. We learn very little about her, and what we do learn is unlikely to be true. But we do see a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it.
This book is written extraordinarily well. That's not to say it was an enjoyable read. I spent much of my reading trying not to compare my own troubles with Tony's, Charis's, or Roz's. I sympathized most strongly with Tony, though I'm quite certain my story won't end so neatly. The book did lend me some new perspectives I hadn't considered. Despite my discomfort, I'm glad I read it.
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