I consider myself a big Margaret Atwood fan, though I’ve only delved into a few of her novels. And I actually only first read The Handmaid’s Tale because it was assigned to me for a class (though I was delighted to find it already on my bookshelf, probably purchased for a few bucks at some used bookstore, and thus not one I needed to add to the list of textbooks to acquire). But it was a novel that really stuck with me, though whether because of its feminist undertones, its narrative style or Atwood’s particular voice, I can’t really say.
I guess the reason I can call Atwood a favorite is because I know she’s reliable. If I’m in a fictional funk, unable to pick up any novels that satisfy my craving for a good yarn, Atwood is one author whose work I know will fit the bill – and there’s a lot of it for me to choose from. That’s kind of what happened with The Robber Bride. I went to the library in search of a post-worthy read, a book that would be worth all the time and effort required to finish it, one that would just beg to be shared with the blogosphere and my small community of readers. I have a huge list of books to get to but I find that few are right at my fingertips at the local public library. Nine times out of ten, I have to put in a request and get it shipped from another branch before I can delve into its pages. So I decided to browse the aisles instead and see what was already right at my fingertips and ready to go home with me. Atwood was it.
The Robber Bride is the story of three women whose lives have been inextricably bound by a woman named Zenia. Tony, Charis and Roz all attended the same university, lived in the same dorm even, but barely knew one another until Zenia, their ruthless, mysterious and beautiful classmate, wreaked havoc in all their lives. Though the three suffered Zenia’s malice in entirely independent encounters, the recurring patterns of her behavior and the lasting heartbreak she sought solidified a friendship among these three women whose commonalities were few and far beyond Zenia.
Told in brilliant Atwood fashion, when The Robber Bride opens, Tony, Charis, and Roz are having lunch some five years after Zenia’s funeral. When they spot her across the restaurant, as alive as ever, we are taken back to the formative years of this dangerous woman’s relationship with her fellow co-eds in order to unearth the character of a woman who faked her own death.
Currently a history professor, Tony was a quiet undergrad who uncharacteristically took up a male friend’s offer to attend a party one night in the hopes that doing so would lead to the unfolding of a beautiful romance. Rather, it led her right to Zenia, and their brief but intense friendship was unlike anything reclusive Tony had known before. We are then taken back to Charis’ unstable youth, as she was juggled among female relatives against her will and fighting against a whole host of inner demons. After college, Zenia enters Charis’ life when the later becomes a yoga instructor and Zenia arrives to her class with a plea for help that the sympathetic gentle Charis cannot refuse. And finally we meet a young Roz, the mysteries of her father’s work, the pull to leave home, and the day when, in an effort to shower some due attention on his wife, Roz’s husband takes her to the restaurant where Zenia waitresses and the two women connect.
As in a mystery, Atwood doesn’t give her readers all they may want or need to know right away, but we earn more and more details as we bide our time. That very form was actually one of my favorite things in reading The Robber Bride; we learn about these three women leading quite disparate existences but who, nonetheless, share a deep and lasting bond because of one mysterious woman. It takes quite a lot of time to discover why Zenia played such a significant role for each of them, how she irrevocably changed the course of their lives, and how it ultimately brought them together. In form, the story unfolds quite realistically, for we are thrown into the present moment with little context, and only in patient time can we expect for the pieces to come together and the larger picture to find itself revealed.
Though a bit dark and brimming with mystery, deception, and heartbreak, The Robber Bride isn’t your categorical mystery novel, harlequin romance, or indulgent piece of chic lit. Intelligently told and wisely crafted, the book has all the hallmarks of a classic drama, a soap opera even, but dispensed in measured doses and veiled under cover of Atwood’s talent as an alluring wordsmith. Though it clocked in at a daunting 520 pages, the novel didn’t feel lengthy or drag on at any point, but rather, quickly progressed in the anachronistic telling of these four women’s stories.
No matter what sort of book you’re in the market for, drama, romance, mystery, or simply a well-weaved story, I highly recommend getting your hands on The Robber Bride. As expected, reviews are good all around and this complex novel is accessible and entertaining for any reader without dumbing itself down to the lowest appreciable level. Margaret Atwood’s authorial stamp on any piece of fiction is a high recommendation in itself but if you need further encouraging to pick this one up, take my word for it. You will be happy you did!