Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

I am blatantly breaking what would have been the rules if I were posting this on Goodreads (and the first paragraph probably will go there, just to shit disturb.) I am going to talk about the author, and how it coloured my reaction for the book. On the way, I'd like to say why I think it's perfectly legitimate to bring what one knows about an author into a review, as it would be disingenuous to say that my reaction to this book wasn't affected by who the author is.

So, Margaret Atwood. Some of her books I like a lot. Some of them, not so much. I thought The Blind Assassin telegraphed its twist from the first fifty pages, and just wasn't that great. I think The Handmaid's Tale is brilliant (my husband thinks the end is gimmicky and a cheat.) Cat's Eye is fantastic. I've never essayed Surfacing. Nor Alias Grace, despite the fact I was once in a play about Grace Marks, nor her science fiction trilogy. I'd like to, some day.

Of course, her stance on science fiction irritates me, a devout science fiction reader, to no end. As do some of her comments about libraries. And that one article about Stephen Harper that I agreed with right up until she went all Godwin's Law on his ass. She was pretty rude to the people working the event that one time she appeared in Kingston, and I was still working at the bookstore. (Unlike, say, Timothy Findley, who was so nice. And Stuart McLean, who walked around the store afterwards thanking everyone who'd worked the event for their help.)

I go into her books, therefore, with some skepticism. Knowing I've liked some and been disappointed by others. And the science fiction grudge was heavily colouring my thoughts. I brought all of that grumpiness to this book.

And this book won.

Guys, The Robber Bride is SO. GOOD.

It's not perfect, the male characters are almost caricatures, but man, it didn't matter. The prose is astounding, the relationships between the female characters so rich, the characters themselves just bursting with life.

So now I have the enthusiasm of the previously let-down, but newly re-evangelized Margaret Atwood reader. And I think you have to know how I got here to know why I responded to this book in the way I did. So, screw you, Goodreads.

The Robber Bride is about three friends who knew each other in university, but were really brought together into a close friendship through their traumatizing experiences at the hands of Zenia, another university acquaintance. With each in turn, she insinuated herself into their lives, twisted their relationships with the men in their lives, took whatever she could, emotionally and physically, and left. They think she's dead. But she just walked into the restaurant.

This sounds melodramatic. It is not. Although, as I said, the men in the book tend to be more caricatures who are incapable of not thinking with their dicks. (One does surprise us by the end.) But the women are so rich. You rarely see such vivid characters of any gender, and she's done it here. They're utterly different from each other, but have, in response to Zenia's hurricane through their lives, bound themselves to each other in ways that they don't even seem to truly understand.

Tony's a professor of military history. Charis works in a new age bookstore. Roz runs a venture capital firm. Each had a father who was notable by their absence, even when they were present. Each has a mother who was in some way unstable and controlling. Each lost, at least temporarily, a man to Zenia's clutches. This should irritate me. But again, somehow she made it work. There's just such nuance here, such turns of phrase, such insight.

It's really excellent. It had to work hard to win me over, but nearly from the beginning, I was hooked. I may think Atwood is sometimes uneven, but this is one of the great ones.


  1. I understand your stance on Atwood. She can be a prickly one, especially when it comes to how she gets labelled. It's not just science fiction she is reluctant to be labelled as; she doesn't like being called feminist either because she doesn't "consciously" work within "the framework of feminism" for her books. <_< Whatever. She is a fantastic writer, but I don't think she has ever reconciled herself to the fact that literary criticism is not something you can opt into.

    Also, Stuart McLean is amazing. If I could have dinner with a Canadian celebrity, it would be him or maybe Rick Mercer. McLean just seems to have a boundless capacity to be nice and genuine.

    1. "I don't think she has ever reconciled herself to the fact that literary criticism is not something you can opt into."

      I think that is the best summation of what's going on that I have read!

      McLean certainly came across that way at the reading - that's the one and only time an author stopped to thank everyone who had been working. Other authors were very nice, but he went the extra mile.