I had been thinking a lot about Margaret Atwood's fiction for the past little bit, thinking about trying another one of her novels, to see if it holds up to the ridiculously high standard set by The Blind Assassin, so I gave one a try, almost haphazardly choosing The Robber Bride, and this is what I thought of it.
Tony is a female historian, specializing in war - Charis is a hippie, thought to be flightly and ditzy but possessing a strong intuition - Roz is an extremely successful businesswoman in a world where female bosses are rare. All three woman are united by Zenia, a mysterious, lying femme fatale who has had dark designs for their respective spouses. After thinking she has died in Beirut, the women are surprised to see her alive and well in Toronto. Has she come for their husbands? Their sons? Their past, present and futures?
This is one of the most readable novels I have read all year. I flew through this 600 page book in a matter of days. It's a page-turner through and through. Luckily, Atwood is able to juggle that sense of airport-fiction with a deft hand at narrative trickery, and profound ruminations on the state of feminism, gender roles, and the war of the sexes.
Atwood's novel is very carefully structured, as I had hoped it would be. Each lead character gets a spotlight, then the sequence repeats, but delving further into the past, and then the sequence repeats a second time, creating an architecture of threes in threes, like a fairy tale, even.
The motif of the fairy tale crops up in each story, in ways of describing the mysterious Zenia, who steals their spouses and high-jacks their histories. Even the title is meant to evoke the concept of a fairy tale.
Suitably, Atwood isn't satisfied with one literary parody. She manages to tackle different modes all in one book. There's the stereotypical Canadian agrarian lit, the kitchen sink realism, and even a murder mystery, which is mentioned by a character, in a metafictional sort of, thus adding another layer. On top of all of this, there's a couple jokes explicitly commenting that this is a pastiche.
Even though she tackles all of these literary modes in one novel, The Robber Bride never comes off being artificial or stiff. Rather, this is an extremely human novel. Atwood handles each and every one of her leads with careful and fair hands, not being too sympathetic, but having a heart nonetheless.
Of each of the women's stories, there were aspects I loved, and aspects I didn't care for. At no point was I dreading a particular sequence. Even the sections with the dippy Charis weren't cringe-worthy as I feared. In fact, they were the most heartbreaking of all the histories.
At the beginning and end of the novel, the historian gets to pontificate on the nature of history, and how arbitrary it is, no real starting point nor end point. The reader is left to decide whether or not Zenia's lies and stories are an attempt to create order from the chaos of reality, like an author's machinations to work a narrative from such different characters and moments and places. Certainly, the grand designs that Atwood have never detract from the humanity and readability of the novel, something not very many authors can pull off.
Overall, The Robber Bride is a masterful novel, filled with suspense, great characters, and some very deep themes. While the book might be a little too readable, the themes and ideas Atwood put forth are deep and thought-provoking. The narrative trickery is as good as I wanted it to be. It isn't quite up to the standard that The Blind Assassin is. That novel seems to be a more refined distillation of the themes and ideas that Atwood has put to use in this novel. However, this is the smallest criticism of a terrific book. I eagerly await finishing my next Atwood novel.