Here Who Killed Zenia? The Triple Goddess Wins, Sort of Mirror, Mirror... Are We All Like Her?

Reviews of The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace.

The Robber Bride

by Margaret Atwood


You've read it, right? If not go purchase, immediately, Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride, and treat yourself to one of the best books written about love in our loveless modern age.

I have to confess a deep prejudice about Atwood. I've been in love with her ever since I saw her tight-lipped, puckish face leering from a dustjacket. A woman to be reckoned with. A woman no man would want mad at him, because merciless wit gleams from her eyes. Someone once told me that what she liked about Atwood was her 'sarcasm' and then sent me off to read whatever I could find. I found The Robber Bride, and then tromped through Cat's Eye, The Handmaid's Tale, Wilderness Tips, Lady Oracle, Surfacing, Bluebeard's Egg, some poems, some short stories, and God knows what else before I was exhausted. What a way to die; a lamia for the mind.

No room here to recommend the excellences of the various books, let me send you, again, to her best work, The Robber Bride. (Note: "Best," indeed, but don't ask me to choose between it and The Blind Assassin if I can only take one into solitary confinement.) Like that book, and then read more. If The Robber Bride leaves you puzzled at my bad taste or embarrassed about my subjectivity, no point in exploring further.

The Robber Bride follows the lives of three women who have been injured by a mutual friend, Zenia, a sociopath whose only joy is hurting people. Each of them — Tony, Roz, and Charis — is a weakling in some vulnerable way, insecure in their love and their self-esteem; and Zenia, glib and beautiful, befriends them long enough to determine what loss would hurt most deeply, then takes that possession, breaks it, and discards it. She seduces and steals the man each one loves, then casts each victim aside. With Roz and Charis, the effect is not merely to take the man, but to destroy him. She fails to destroy Tony's beloved West, not for lack of dedication. She gives that one her most intense efforts.

Where Atwood excels is in her loving ironies. She is merciless with her three protagonists, even the patently (and deceptively, I hasten to add) autobiographical Tony Fremont. She balances the trivial weight of the three women's possessions against the mean-spirited cruelty of their 'friend,' and comes to the simple truth that if someone truly values small and unworthy things, that smallness, that lack of objective worth, does not diminish the crime of others who break or take those things.

Tony the scholar, a historian in a "man's field" (the history of warfare), a mouse of passivity whose secret pleasure is envisioning the brutality of men at war, loves her huge, bungling West beyond even her own reason. Roz is a scatterbrained monster of middle-class rectitude and her lost husband was a mediocre lawyer who took her as a suburban trophy wife. Charis, a flower-child and perennial waif, took into her life a worthless vagrant on the lam from his American draft board and would be well rid of him, were it not for the humiliating, simply sadistic, way that Zenia takes him.

The course of the novel, if we exclude the brief epilogue, spans less than a week, beginning when each of the women discovers that Zenia is not, as they had thought, dead. We watch each of them cope with the new threat she poses, see reprised the contest each of them lost with her, and in the reprise learn their personal histories. Then we follow them into a cabal to deal with her. Driven to act, they arrive independently at her hotel, each determined to commit some desperate act of self-defense, and they each, independently, reach the same decision — not to kill her. Then they go back together, that night, for a final accounting, only to discover that she is indeed, now, inexplicably but unequivocally, dead at last. Tony has the last word: "Was she in any way like us? thinks Tony. Or, to put it the other way around: Are we in any way like her?"

That odd glance in the mirror concludes the last twenty pages of the novel, in which each woman reflects on her personal contest with Zenia and each, in her own way, comprehends the debt she owes Zenia (a debt summed up in the epigraph from Jessamyn West: "A rattlesnake that doesn't bite teaches you nothing"). I remember telling someone, while explaining what I consider the greatest excellence of the book, that I was terrified at first reading, as we got closer to the end, lest Atwood might try a final magic trick and make this despicable bitch as human and sympathetic as she had each of the others. Instead, she lets her heroines bury and forgive Zenia and then, in closing, this sudden image, the alien eye looking back.

For my taste, the greatest strength of the book is a masterful stroke you can only fully appreciate at first reading. You see the action first through Tony's eyes, and Tony is so like Atwood (small, academic, witty) that you are seduced into accepting hers as an objective view. You see Roz as a loud, insecure, overweight boor, only interesting because Tony tolerates her, and Charis is a tiresomely silly New-Age twit. Then in Chapter Seven the perspective shifts. the book began with Tony getting up in the morning, putting her affairs in order, and heading for the restaurant where she, Charis, and Roz meet for a routine monthly lunch. It takes six chapters to get her to The Toxique and, after some conversation, the almost supernatural resurrection of the dead, cremated, and buried Zenia.

Then we return to sunrise, looping back in time five or six hours, and watch Charis make her way, five chapters later, to the same place, the same conversation, and the same surprise. Charis takes center stage and we are engaged, almost immediately, with the person beneath Tony's not so much patronizing as uncomprehending generalities. Seeing with Charis' eyes, we see Tony's oddments and quirks as Charis sees them, and Roz differently as well. Zenia, oddly enough, is much the same. And like us, Charis "knows" that Zenia is not dead: one of many tasty folds marbled into this deliciously old-fashioned post-modernist novel about fiction.

And then, in Chapter Eleven, Charis safely delivered to her destination and Zenia reborn again, we return a third time to the beginning of the day and watch Roz try to get up, face her wonderful daughters at breakfast, and struggle with her schedules, her insecurities, her responsibilities, and her makeup. And at last she too finds herself, almost accidentally, at the restaurant, facing her friends and then her silicon-breasted nemesis. Looking through the eyes of plump, pedestrian Roz, we see all three women newly again.

Each protagonist becomes, while at center stage, the most interesting of the three, as the camera shifts, chapter by chapter, to tell their individual stories. Hence my fear about Zenia. Why be afraid that she might become human — that is, vulnerable and appealing — once she has a chance to speak her own inner mind? Because she is not, finally, a whole person. There may be some of Zenia is all of us, as Tony thinks in those last moments, but there is some us that Zenia is missing, like a limb or a lobe of the brain. The other women, each strong in her way and weak and unattractive in so many others, have the completeness of color. Zenia is a crippled thing, wounded no doubt, but too dangerous to excuse, a creature of broad strokes all black on a white field. Pity a rabid dog; but not from too close, and not while it's eying your children.

Mercifully, Atwood draws the line there, even underscoring Zenia's otherness by making her death almost unbelieveably ex machina, although that last observation from Tony alerts us that Atwood knows what fire she has been playing with.

This extraordinary book is about the passion of love in ordinary people, and the damage that can be caused by a person who seems extraordinary only because she defines herself entirely by contraries. Zenia loves no one. Not even for the brief moment when she is taking possession of each man does she feel any affection for him. She makes nothing; her creative act is to destroy what others have made. She is free only in the sense that she lives on the labor and property of others: the freedom of thieves. There is nothing admirable about her. As Roz points out, even her breasts are fake.

And yet, there is the debt, the many debts. Tony has refined her understanding of good and evil, confronted with this amoral creature. Roz and Charis are free of men they never should have loved. (And Atwood reminds us, so easy it is to forget, that "love" and "should" have little to do with each other.) Facing Zenia, dodging the snake's fangs, each of the women grows. The U.S. paperback edition of The Robber Bride quotes People magazine in a cover blurb: "Its unforgettable temptress causes worlds of trouble, 'just for the fun of it.'" But Zenia is quite forgettable, frankly; she barely exists, a colorless cartoon compared to the three living woman she tries to poison. And I doubt if Tony, devastated with grief when Zenia takes West away by doing little more than curling a finger, or Roz when she understands that not content with seducing her husband, Zenia now has her eye on Roz's son, or Charis faced with a morning when everything she believes in is smeared with Zenia's contempt, I doubt if any of them would use the word 'fun' to describe Zenia.

It is easy to mistake Atwood's clear-eyed objectivity for cynicism. No one, in Atwood's world, is worthy of love. It falls upon us like God's redeeming grace. And there is so little to go around that we can understand the impulse to steal it. But Zenia doesn't steal; she spoils. Therein is her evil and this makes her so much less than her three adversaries with their meagre, precious treasures. Atwood offers, at one point, a brilliant definition of love, when Tony says of her husband, "He was boring, like children." This is the love that ignores merit and measure and worth. This is the love that survives bad breath in the morning and infidelity. The terrible mystery of love, that it is fragile, misplaced, at once nurturing and poisonous: that is the key to this book.

It is a dark world, a world where this is the best love we can expect, dark as "Dover Beach." But the bleakness is warmed by a shared, consoling mystery of companionship and affection. It is a consolation Zenia would deny exists. For her, it never did.

I am building a scattered essay on elements of The Robber Bride — scattered in the sense that they are not meant to be read in any order. Here is a map of the pieces (the grey one is where you are now):

Review of The Robber Bride

Who Killed Zenia?

The Triple Goddess Wins, Sort of

Mirror, Mirror...

Are We All Like Her?

I have posted reviews of The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace. Upon publication of The Blind Assassin Atwood's publisher, Doubleday, put up a page for her which may still be available. The Random House "Reader's Companion" page for The Robber Bride has some useful interpretive materials, including a few Atwood poems and her address to the American Bookseller's Association the year the book was published.

She has her own website as well, the delightfully named Owtoad. Other good sites are The Atwood Society and Brittany Chenault's Atwood Links. I recently discovered a beautiful and comprehensive bibliography site,

If you like Margaret Atwood, you might like Louise Erdrich, a woman of Michif (Métis) heritage who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Love Medicine in 1985. I have posted an annotated bibliography of her work and reviews of The Antelope Wife and her newest novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.

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