October 23, 1990. It’s a bright clear day, unseasonably warm. It’s a Tuesday. The Soviet bloc is crumbling, the old maps are dissolving, the Eastern tribes are on the move again across the shifting borders. There’s trouble in the Gulf, the real estate market is crashing, and a large hole has developed in the ozone layer. The sun moves into Scorpio, Tony has lunch at the Toxique with her two friends Roz and Charis, a slight breeze blows in over Lake Ontario, and Zenia returns from the dead.
Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride begins in the middle, with the return from the dead described above and the reactions of the three friends, Tony, Roz, and Charis. Zenia came into their lives years ago, when they were in college, and gradually she worked her way through them—and their men—until she was killed in an explosion in Lebanon, a fittingly dramatic end to a woman who seemed to live in drama.
I think most women, and perhaps men, have known a Zenia, a woman who comes along and is the perfect friend, who knows exactly what you need and says exactly the right things, gives you just the kind of attention you crave—until she doesn’t. At some point, she will have gotten what she needs and moved on. You know, the “frenemy”—Zenia is the consummate frenemy.
Atwood tells Zenia’s story by telling the story of the three friends: the intellectual military historian Tony, the deeply insecure but savvy businesswoman Roz, and the soulful but flighty Charis. Each woman has something Zenia wants, and Zenia somehow instinctively knows exactly how she can get it. She knows how to become each woman’s friend, sensing their deepest longings and using them for her own ends. Even when their guard is up, Zenia wheedles her way in. Atwood charts each woman’s history, showing exactly what it was that made them vulnerable to Zenia’s schemes.
The three women form a bond built largely on Zenia’s betrayal of each of them, but even after Zenia’s apparent death they continue to meet. Despite their differences, they have become friends. But now that Zenia has returned from the dead, what will they do?
This was one of the first Margaret Atwood novels I ever read, and it remains one of my favorites. I find the dynamics of the female relationships fascinating. Although the women in the book talk a great deal about the men Zenia took from them, the stories themselves seem more about the way Zenia was, and then wasn’t, a friend. In one sense, this shows how important female friendships can be. It may be more socially acceptable to rant about the theft of a man, so that’s what the women in the book dwell on, but the loss of Zenia herself seems to be just about as devastating a blow. There’s also the matter of how Zenia gets all the blame for the men’s defection, when it always takes two to tango. Are women more willing to vilify other women than to acknowledge the betrayal of a man? Interestingly, men are almost entirely absent from the book. To some extent, the women’s feelings about the men in their lives drives the action, but the men themselves are not a force at all.
Don’t get the idea, though, that this book is all about women hating women. The bond between the three main characters is just as fascinating as their relationship with Zenia. There’s no good reason these three should be friends, but somehow, they are. As the book goes on, we learn just how close they are as tidbits emerge about the ways they have taken care of one another over the years, even when Zenia was out of the picture. And they do draw strength from each other (at one point, this idea is perhaps made a little too literal, but it works given that it involves Charis who is always looking to draw upon spiritual energies).
Atwood’s tale is hard-hitting and brutal, depicting the nastiness of women right alongside their generosity. And Atwood leaves a lot open for interpretation. Zenia may be a villain and a liar, but she sees the truth more clearly than perhaps anyone in the book does. She knows exactly how to prey on others’ doubts, speaking their deepest fears aloud when she wants to wound, just as she spoke their hopes aloud in order to befriend. But even at the end of the book, we, right along with the trio of friends, are left in doubt as to whether some of Zenia’s lies were, in fact, built from fragments of truth. It makes for gripping reading, a must for any Atwood fan.
Other reviews: Caribou’s Mom