Margaret Atwood,
The Robber Bride
(Talese, 1993; Bantam,
1995; Anchor, 1998)

The story of The Robber Bride is told through the eyes of three women -- not really friends, in some senses of the word, but united by a long-time bond and a common loathing. The eponymous star of the book, Zenia, doesn't actually appear much in the story except through flashbacks; in fact, when the book begins, she is five years dead. Or so Tony, Charis and Roz believe.

The three women met in college, but their lives have since gone in very different directions. Tony is a professor of history -- or, more specifically, war. She is married, though childless, and her husband is somewhat fragile of spirit. Tony is solid, logical and often dispassionate. Charis is earthier, wrapped in new-age philosophies. She is unsure how to deal with her college-age daughter, and she still wonders what happened to her long-vanished husband, a Vietnam draft-dodger from the States. Roz is a typical mother of three (one post-college son and twin high school-aged daughters) and a wealthy businesswoman, president of her own diverse company.

Zenia is the woman who wrecked their lives, one at a time and years apart. With a multiple-choice past and an enigmatic present, Zenia has facades upon facades, schemes upon conceits, and she befriends people with ease before corrupting the best parts of their lives -- perhaps for no other reason than she can.

Margaret Atwood takes you deep inside each woman's skin -- except, of course, Zenia, who must remain a mystery -- peeling away layers of their lives and examining in white-knuckled detail the events, experiences and tragedies that shaped them. Each woman's narrative seems sufficient foundation for a book even without Zenia's intrusion; combined, The Robber Bride is a tapestry of carefully woven strands, seen individually and successively through each woman's perspective. The flow of flashbacks within flashbacks is effectively rendered, never confusing.

It is interesting to conjecture the different lives these women might lead if Zenia had not targeted their vulnerable places. Perhaps better, perhaps worse -- but far less interesting -- The Robber Bride is a triumphant look at the core of three women and the multifaceted surface of the one who defined them.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 13 September 2003

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