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The Robber Bride

December 12, 2010

When I first started reading this book, I was very skeptical. It seemed like intelligent chick lit, but chick lit none-the-less. In other words, I felt the men were portrayed as helpless idiots, in need of care, and the women were hopelessly wrapped up in them. In many ways, this remained the characterization until the end of the novel, but I think it’s a much more complicated book than I originally gave it credit for.

Take, for example, my initial hesitation with a very obvious war motif that runs throughout the novel. Tony – the character I was most interested in, and the character I was most disappointed in – is a historian specializing in military studies. She’s also the first woman in the story to encounter the evil Zenia, a manipulative, cunning, beautiful woman who manages to ruin the three main characters’ lives. Instantly, war becomes an overpowering metaphor for the way women treat each other. In other words: men have violent war, and women have the backbiting, gossipy fighting they’ve constantly been relegated to in literature. But, by the end of the novel, that metaphor became much more complex. By the end you’re not sure if Zenia is a fallen comrade or a fallen enemy, but Tony shows a certain respect towards her rival that I find fascinating. Is the war between Zenia and the other women? Is it between women and men? Is it between Zenia and men? I don’t think the novel necessarily clarifies this point, and I appreciated that ambiguity.

I was also interested by the feminist slant that the Roz character tends to follow, while still remaining trapped in her patriarchal ideals. A main theme of the book is that there is an outmoded way of looking at and enacting male/female relationships that a certain generation (WWII war babies) is stuck in, despite the feminist movements of the 70s. Roz, a rich, successful business woman, is still obsessed with taking care of her husband, viewing him as a vulnerable, broken bird despite the fact that he is constantly cheating on her. Many people have interpreted the book as being an indictment against men (something that is not helped by the very poor characterization of the men by Atwood), but I think they are as much victims of a certain prevailing attitude as the women. They have a license to act obscenely. Zenia represents the dark side of this mothering culture, taking advantage of all the horrible things society has to offer.

Anyway, it’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was a better beach read than The Girl Who Played with Fire, which was kind of a disaster. What Stieg Larsson represents as didactic and boring, Atwood renders complicated, even though both novels deal with many of the same themes.

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