The Robber Bride

The Robber BrideThe Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Robber Bride I sometimes felt that I was eavesdropping on an intimate woman-to-woman talk. Yet the book is just as powerful and relevant for men. Dated in some details, but by no means in essentials, Robber Bride conveyed a real sense of dread at times.

Three midlife women have been bonded, for many years, through the common woe dealt to them by Zenia, a stunning beauty who ‘stole’ and then morally destroyed each of their male partners, and brought material damage to the women themselves. Years after attending her funeral they still feared her memory. Now they now discover that Zenia not only hasn’t died, but has recently made contact with the current men in their lives.

Roz is an earthy, practical-minded boss, Tony a cold-fish academic, Charis an intuitive, spiritualist hippie. Half-paralysed by anxiety, they now try to understand what is happening – to those around them, and inside their own heads – and take defensive action. Along the way we learn at length about the psychological damage they each received in their childhoods, and how it has shaped their later experience of Zenia. In fact their backgrounds take up a large part of the text.

The sociopathic aspect of Zenia is pretty clear – someone unencumbered by conscience or empathy, x-raying people to view the skeleton of their deepest drives, but entirely missing the beauty and soft appeal of their rounded personalities. She feeds only off challenge and victory and new kicks: for her a sustained relationship equals boredom, not the chance to grow close.

She is also of course a femme-fatale: in Zenia, the woman who defines herself in terms of the male gaze has sharpened herself into a deadly weapon. You start with a body that is socially defined as lovely; work on it; bring to bear all the tricks of charm; add insight, cunning, self-discipline, composure under pressure. Now supply the rationale, the excuse he needs to get past his conscience (you are vulnerable and need his help, for example), and you have him. Sex opens a mine-shaft to the inner psyche, which she knows how to explore. As sex-goddess Zenia becomes 90% of reality to her men. But this is all seen from a distance, from the perceptions of the three women and the apocryphal comments of Z herself.

Sex is not her only hook, and in the case of her female victims it is always some other longing – Zenia finds out whatever people yearn for, and finds a way to embody it. This we get in some detail (we see far more of various imagined Zenias than of the woman herself).

However she gets hold of you, once she has you you are gone. After that, any public hint that she is using you feels threatening, not because of what it says about her, but because it might displease her and have her withdraw from you. Her approval is everything. But the judgments she delivers to men and to women – once she has sucked them dry – are of the greatest brutality, resonating with the worst messages they have internalised from the past. She now walks the corridors of their dreams.

Even once they understand what she is, and hate her, they can’t help wanting to identify with, celebrate, even cherish her, thanks to her intense vitality and the passions she has summoned up in them.

The book is similar to Balzac’s Cousin Bette and Thackery’s Vanity Fair in having an evil female agent who works against a backdrop of male depravity and moral weakness; there are strong hints that this is the real problem to be addressed. The men are never seen from the inside; two of them remain almost entirely blank to us, though they all seem to end up with some kind of self-loathing. One of them, in the final break-up scene with his partner, gives a fine example of the malice that comes out when someone abandons their ideals.

A few reviewers have complained that the book demonises the ‘other woman’ and non-monogamous women generally. It could be used that way, though it is unlikely to be the author’s intention, given her support for female sexual expression in other contexts.

The book warns that high-minded thoughts and finer feelings draw their sap from dark roots: poison them and the whole tree sickens.

It is also very funny in parts. And there are the references to fairy tales and the supernatural – it really needs an extended review.

View all my reviews


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: