Review of The Robber Bride Who Killed Zenia? Here Mirror, Mirror... Are We All Like Her?

Reviews of The Blind Assassin, The Robber Bride, and Alias Grace.

The Robber Bride:

The Triple Goddess Wins, Sort of


The title here is a "bait and switch" scam, I'm afraid. The Triple Goddess (Maiden, Mother, Crone) isn't a direction I see much value in pursuing, as I think about the book. I could be wrong. What I am more interested in is the way that the three women embody human "types" as characteristic and differentiated as Renaissance humors. I don't have the intellectual energy to pursue this observation with the hue and cry of an academic beagle on the scent of fox. But I want to use this misleading rubric to write briefly about each of Atwood's protagonists.

As I said in my review, the wonderful, engaging thing about the novel is Atwood's virtuoso performance as she shifts our sympathy and empathy from one woman to the next. Each woman — Tony, Charis, Roz — is dangerously close to being a cardboard stereotype, and Atwood flirts with that danger by adding, as her "temptress," about as cardboard a human being as I've encountered in a while, new villainess or not. As we explore the history and character of each of these three women, we watch them focus, as if through a turning lens, into real, complex people.

Roz, The Earth Mom

One of her twin daughters (Erla, one letter skewed from "Erda." And is it an accident that the other name we can make from Paula and Erin, if we ignore the superfluous silent 'u', is Pain?) actually calls her that, at the end of the book, in case we have (1) missed it or (2) taken it too seriously. After five chapters of Tony's intellectual introversion, all that convoluted, emotionless abstract thinking, and another five of Charis tenuously floating, pretty and pointless as a breeze-borne leaf, through a reality she never quite seems to be able to settle on, Roz's "Ms. Mature Fuller Figure" persona, plumping down on the leather seat at The Toxique without worrying if it will make a noise embarrassingly flatulent (or rather, worrying about it and deciding life is short, and sure enough, there's the darned noise), is as refreshing as a raspberry. The sound of one, I mean.

All three women have important things in common, things a lot more common than being stalked and wounded by Zenia. All three have had traumatic childhoods as a result of World War II. All three have been deeply and profoundly in love with a man whom we, in each case, suspect may not have been worth it. All three, though it might seem arguable, have made good lives for themselves. All three, as Tony observes somewhat ironically of Charis, have "rich imaginative lives." It falls to Roz, a Catholic for a while in the WASP world of Canada, then a Jew just when she'd gotten the hang of being Catholic, to represent the simple Everywoman trying to get by, keep the house, raise her kids. Not ethereal Mary at the knees of Charis' beatific Oval, but Martha counting the potatoes to make sure there are enough to go around. Not wise Ynot, muse of reflection, tippler from Goth skulls, but a woman with big thighs that money can't fix, and a broken heart that money can't fix, and three children she protects and prays will survive and suffer only things that money can fix, and more money than she needs.

She should be, as Tony observes that children are, boring. And yet she is not. She is brassy and wonderful and down-to-earth, with a rich sense of humor and resilient solidity. We care about her the way Tony and Charis do, and interestingly, we end up liking her better than they do. We find ourselves thinking, as Tony winces at one of Roz's vulgarisms, "Ah, Tony, if only you knew!"

Charis, Eternal Virgin

If the book offers one lesson to us all, it is that we cannot "grade" the emotional lives of others. Never mind "emotional life"; any aspect of their life. Knowing these three women so well, would we dare to say "Tony has had the best luck," or "Roz suffered the most," or "Charis is the most emotional"? Every place we touch down teeters and tips as we settle there. Tony is the "smart one," the reasoner. Uh-uh. The one who ends up standing in front of Zenia trying to decide whether to kill her with a pistol or a cordless drill. The latter purchased specifically for the purpose of "dealing with Zenia" and tucked inside Tony's handbag next to a nice Luger.

And yet (You saw this coming, right?) if we were to "grade" their lives, surely we would agree that Charis/Karen's was the most traumatic? Raised as the abused daughter of a bipolar and violent woman, she is raped and continually molested by a foster parent through her adolescence. Cheated of her inheritance until chance circumstance intervenes, an unwed mother with no job skills, she is the loser of the three, huh? Small wonder that when her uncle "tore her in two," she transformed that graphic image of a raped nine-year-old into the birth of a new persona, Charis who is not of this world, Charis the virgin, Charis whose very name is the Greek word for sexual desire, Charis who can only enjoy sex by becoming Zenia (Ch 36).

Unlike Roz and Tony, Charis has built her life around a fantasy, the fantasy of Billy's love. Both Tony and Roz have few delusions about the men they love. A painful and refreshing element of Roz's character is her very clear understanding of who Mitch is. I think that is so, even if we disagree with Roz's self-defeating corollary, that he is all she can get, that she couldn't do better. She doesn't keep Mitch, or try to, because he's all she can get. She keeps him, or tries to, because she loves him. Poor woman. Similarly, Tony knows exactly who West is, and he may be a boring child, but he is her boring child. What a terrifying picture this novel paints, of the nature of love.

But if Tony and Roz have no illusions about their men, Charis is nearly the opposite. She has so little understanding of Billy that she is not even sure, when Zenia tells her that he killed the chickens, whether it could be true. (I think it's not, by the way.) What matters to her, when she has Billy, is not who he is but who she imagines him to be. It is the Billy of her imagination that she loves, so blindly that she doesn't even get it when he cheats on her in her own house. That this is her weakness, this inability to see the real world through the haze of her imagination, should be no surprise.

What is surprising, I think, is that it is also her strength. We do not agree with Tony that Charis is a creature of "intellectual wispiness." In fact, I resent it a bit when Tony dismisses her with such condescension. Charis is a superb Yoga instructor, if we are to understand the description of her teaching in Ch 31. She is not "incompetent," despite her self-doubts. It is Charis, after all, who confronts the real Zenia and defeats her. Now what do I mean by that? Well, the "real Zenia" is a cancerous woman looking for one last chance to hurt her three "best friends" (and Charis is right about that too, Tony darling). Tony sees intrigue, Roz sees crime, Charis sees cancer. The intrigue is wishful thinking, the crime is implicit, the cancer is real. Who is out of touch with reality?

Zenia has a handle on Tony and Roz. She doesn't beat them, but they withdraw to regroup. Charis on the other hand actually defeats Zenia twice in the hotel confrontation. First, when she becomes Karen for that brief, terrible moment. We never believe that Tony is going to "drill" Zenia with her cordless weapon of death, much less plug her with Daddy's suicide gun. And Roz's imagined murder, bopping on the head and ropes of pantyhose and simulated sex crimes, gives me the giggles. But when Karen appears on the balcony it is, to put it mildly, very convincing. The virgin Artemis, the goddess in her wrath. Five times I've read that page, and it gets me every time. I find myself thinking, "Oh Christ, Charis, don't do it!" And of course, she doesn't. She does something much more satisfying. She impales Zenia on the pike of forgiveness.

Charis beats her. By forgiving her, she takes control of their relationship. "Get a life!" Zenia replies, and Charis is right, even though she has doubts later, she has a life. Tony and Roz fought to a draw, if you count agreeing to $50,000 in blackmail money a draw. But Charis wins. And lest we miss the point, she, not clever Tony, explains that they all won, because they managed, when the decisive moment arrived, "not to succumb," not to turn into Zenia. Her comment resonates back to the sexual moment in Ch 36, which begins with Charis seeing Karen become Zenia, and progresses while Charis is thinking, "It's not me." Charis has been Zenia, and even though she got some benefit from it, she knows the dangers.

Tony a Crone? Enorca! Y not?

It is far too tempting, because of the similarities between Tony Fremont and Peggy Atwood, to think of Tony as a disguised authorial voice. It is true, I think, that she speaks for Atwood sometimes. Her view of history is consistent with other Atwood books, for example. But it is a red herring. Charis and Roz "speak for Atwood" too. The distance from Roz the women's magazine magnate to Atwood the politically active feminist, moralist, and observer is not that great, for example. And when they talk about war, in Ch 10, it is Charis who is right, not special pleader Tony. War is death and pain, not a chess game with edible pieces. She speaks for Atwood, I think, even if a bit glibly, when she suggests that "we should care about everybody" and "live in the now." ("She's absolutely right!" Roz points out.) Tony "is" Atwood? Tony is a mouse who knows she can bite. Atwood is no mouse.

I'm not convinced that Tony sees any better, chooses any more wisely, or reflects any more accurately on what they have been through, than either Charis or Roz. Take for example her observation that her husband is boring, "like children." Outside the frame of the novel, it is wonderful, wise, and clever. But Tony isn't being clever; she thinks children are boring. She doesn't have any. She doesn't want any, and she doesn't much like those of her friends. So? Well, we like them, these children, even prickly Augusta and woeful Larry. They are not boring. We've seen boring children, elsewhere in the world. Tony, Karen, and Roz were not boring children, except in comparison to the darling horrid Erla. Tony is clever, witty, and wrong. Her appointed role is to be the dispassionate observer, the court recorder, the historian, norn and muse. And we know, almost from the moment we meet her, how ill suited she is for the task.

In many ways, the sister spirits of this novel are Tony and Charis rather than Tony and Roz. (Roz actually alerts us to this at the end of Ch 15 as she watches her two friends wander off into the traffic.) All three have rough childhoods, but what Roz coped with was the mundane roughness of prejudice, poverty, embarrassment. Not the trauma of parental suicide or child abuse, anyway. Least tested, she is in many ways the strongest; and so what? She needs to be, with three children to protect. Tony gently patronizes both her friends, but it is tempting to swing the pendulum the other way, and argue that she is in fact the weakest, the most ineffectual, the least "in control" of the three. Like Charis, Tony Fremont is "split in two," but her bifurcation takes the unthreatening form of an amusing fantasy, her life as an "opposite person," Tnomerf Ynot. Why should we see Charis' duality as a dangerous illusion and Tony's as an amusing quirk?

Finally, is Tony right, that we are "like Zenia"? She was wrong about children; what else does she tell us that we should not believe? She makes her observation about our relationship to Zenia with an intellectual flourish almost as classically indirect as the traditional one of academic waffling: "One wonders, after all, if one might be not unlike Zenia." It is an unnerving place for the book to end, with this banal, perhaps misleading question that poses as the moral of the tale. The answer to her question is, frankly, dismissive. Yes, of course we are, and more to the point, Charis is right. Those similarities are the dross we grow from, never forgetting our roots.

What is the real moral of this grand book? That anyone who demands "What I deserve" is a fool. Hope for love instead.

Well, What About Zenia?

When we are accounting for Zenia, we should keep in mind that the poor thing had such a terrible life. Probably. Anyway, she was an orphan. We think. How are we like Zenia? We are the children of rape and suicide and lost hopes and parental cruelty and mean kids and disappointment and loss. Is Zenia the way she is because she suffered? I'm afraid not. Charis suffered. Tony suffered. Roz suffered. And they did not become what Zenia became. (Should they have? Spare me the cynicism.) So look for some other explanation.

Five times through the book, and I remain stuck with my first troubling perception. Zenia is not real. As Tony tells us, her name is literally not real. There is no such name in all of history and language. This, incidentally, is another Atwood red herring. Zenia's name is, with an identifiable 'Z' instead of an ambiguous 'X', the Greek word Xenia, "guest-friendship," the crystalline equivalent of our soggy, muggy words "hospitality" and "camaraderie." It has its root in the "Xeno" of strangers. She is indeed the ultimate stranger and violator of "guest-friendship." Her history, apparently all of her histories, in fact, is not real. All Tony can find for roots and past is some deadend connection to an orphanage long gone. As Roz tells us, her tits are not real. Her nose either. Only for Charis is she real. For Charis, because Zenia is a spiritual force, the Satanic force of denial, the destroyer. Virgin, Mother, and Crone, the Triple Goddess is a force impelling life. Zenia is the entropic negative of that force. Not death its dreadful sister, but the uncreating void.

The Triple Goddess? Charis, Roz, and Tony as Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Sure, why not?

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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