The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
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Having previously read a novel by Margaret Atwood that fell firmly into the dystopian genre, I expected something along the same lines with The Robber Bride. It took me probably fifty pages to finally realize that is not the direction in which this one was headed and to get beyond constantly looking for a science fiction twist.
The Robber Bride weaves a rather tangled web anchored on the sides by three friends, Tony, Roz and Charis, in the middle of which rests the ultimate black widow, Zenia. Zenia works her way, one by one, through the men in each of these women’s lives, poisoning both sides of the relationship through her deceptively detailed lies and her lack of genuine emotion towards any other human being.
The novel, while taking place in present day Canada, spends a majority of its pages flashing back through the stories of how each woman’s love was lured away by Zenia and then how the women were left to pick up the pieces of their lives, their relationships and their memories. For one this mean welcoming back the husband that strayed, for one it meant remaking her husband’s suicide into an accident to protect her children and for one it meant never really knowing what happened to her boyfriend after she watched him sail away from their island home on the daily ferry. These jumps in time and place have the potential to confuse the story and the timeline, but Atwood is able to seamlessly make these transitions in a way that never leaves the reader wondering how they got from an aging island shack to an upscale corner office in Toronto.
Zenia is the epitome of a novel’s antagonist. She is a dark-haired, pale-skinned beauty who can calmly lie her way in and out of any situation. Her skills are perfected to a point where her character is almost unbelievable. Until her death, there is nary a flaw in her plans. She is able to walk all over every man she desires. While this makes for a smooth flowing story, it does not necessarily make for believable characters.
The idea of three women who become friends based on one single connecting link- the woman who lured away each of their men-is, again, a bit of a stretch. These women meet once a month for lunch, never bringing up their singular connection until Zenia resurfaces in their lives. What is it that keeps them coming back to that lunch before her return? Guilt? Self-loathing? The need to keep turning the knife in the wound? I am not sure most women would want this constant reminder of the darker moments in their lives.
Maragret Atwood is a skilled writer. She infuses her story with references to an old Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale and pulls on Tony’s interest in wars to enlighten the reader on the battles these women each face. It isn’t the writing the lacks, but the characters, which, at times, seem a bit forced. The book was entertaining enough to have me wanting to know how these women finally disentangle themselves from the arms of Zenia, but not enough to not wish is was a few less than its 528 pages long. Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride is awarded: