Books chewed and digested

Location: Bay Area, California, United States


Sunday, May 23, 2004

Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride kicked my Ass
Review by Nina

My essay on Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride has been holding up this blog for weeks. I've actually read at least 4 other books in the meantime. I just feel that I have to get this one out of my system first before I can tell you about the others.

The Robber Bride is about women's relationships with other women, the landscape of women's thoughts and the failure to be emotionally honest with ourselves and others. I have no idea what it would be like for a man reading the book. I imagine it something like visiting a foreign land and finding a few things familiar but out of context.

Three women, friends because they have all been betrayed by the same woman, encounter their nemesis again after they think they have buried her. Read the plot outline here. Several of those reviews refer to the book as satirical but I've completely missed the joke.

The villainess Zenia is a psychic vampire; she exploits every weakness, sucks everything from the characters' lives that she can (money, men, self-confidence) but she must be invited in. She cannot cross their threshold against their will. Through most of the book the women are much more focused on saving and protecting their men from Zenia than they are in saving themselves. They think that Zenia is out to get their men but Zenia is out to get them. They persist in thinking that men are fragile, easily broken and unable to understand the truth (each women's truth, of course, we all have our own truth).

The three women are all broken in different ways, they have had traumatic childhoods and absent parents. They are easily exploitable. To kill Zenia they must both reject her seduction and internalize some of her hardness, her cruelty. Because she exploits their naivete they must give it up for good to rid themselves of her. This hardening--for which they are sadly grateful at the end--is not about loving less but about solidifying who they are in relationship to other people. You may disagree but I thought the ending was hopeful. In the aftermath of the final encounter with Zenia each woman takes a step closer to a more honest relationship with her partner or child.

I'd like to believe that if only these women could have seen a good therapist there wouldn't have been so much trauma. I'd like to chalk it up to generational differences. I'd like to believe that women these days take more personal power. That we're more honest about our motives and feelings. Don't see men as some strange delicate creature to be protected and "saved." I read the whole book thinking that I would never be taken in by a Zenia. That I would never invite her in - that I'm too grounded in my own identity to be convinced by her lies. And now that I'm done with the book I'm not so sure.

Which brings me to the title. In the middle of the book, Roz goes into her basement and finds the fairy tales she used to read to her girls when they were little. She recalls one phase the girls went through in which they insisted that all of the characters were female. So anyone who read them a story had to read it with all feminine pronouns. One of the other characters, Tony, changes the story she reads them to the Robber Bride instead of The Robber Bridegroom. When Roz asks the girls why, they just look at her as if to say, "you know." The story of The Robber Bridegroom is one of those un-Disneyable Grimm stories filled with hacked body parts. If you read the story with all feminine pronouns you could read all the characters as different women. While it's easy to see Zenia as the Robber and the other characters as first the victim and then the bride, it's not so clear which character in Atwood's book represents the old woman. I don't think that's the point, however, of replacing all the pronouns. I think that if you read the story with all feminine pronouns then it could also be about one woman.

When the bride-to-be in the fairy tale tells the story of her discovery of the evil nature of her robber bridegroom she starts by saying, "Darling it was only a dream." One technique of analyzing your dreams is to assume that all people in the dream are you. If all of the "shes" are the same woman then each woman is robber, victim, brave bride and rescuing crone. Roz, Charis and Tony's journey is paradoxically both to solidify their identities (by which I mean become more honest about who they are to themselves and in relationship to others) and to learn how they encompass the landscape of woman--villain and hero, virgin and crone. "And this weak and idle theme, no more yielding but a dream..." means that inasmuch as I believe I am the brave bride who exposes and banishes evil I must also admit my capacity to be both the victim and the robber.

Bibliovore says it tastes like a rare filet mignon, complex and primal at the same time.