Adventures in Reading

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

I had a love and hate relationship with Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride while reading it and at least twice I closed the book and swore I had given up. The Robber Bride is the story of four women and how their lives since college days in Toronto have intertwined and fragmented. Tony, Charis and Roz are three women whose lives have all been disturbed by Zenia. Zenia is an aggressor and in the battle of the sexes she has sworn allegiance to no one but herself. She is the other woman, the woman that doesn’t get or at least chooses not to follow the unspoken rules of women and men and relationships.

It would be easy to dislike Zenia if it weren’t for the fact that the men she possesses – Tony’s husband, Charis’ boyfriend, Roz’s husband – are creeps for one reason or another. They are men highly dependent on the women in their lives but are simultaneously abusive towards them. These are men who take advantage of the women in their lives, but perhaps what is worse is that these are women – Tony, Charis and Roz – who know what is happening to them but decide to stick with it. Ultimately the only reason one can really dislike Zenia is because of her brutal honesty in exploiting these men’s weaknesses and forcing these women to come to terms with what they already know.

The character detail and development in The Robber Bride was excruciating. It is what made me put the book down from exhaustion but also drove me to return to the novel. The character investigation into Tony’s, Charis’ and Roz’s lives goes into minute details that creates three stunningly developed characters. What I discovered was that short engagements with the book are all I could handle and any attempt to spend a great deal of time with the book was a failure. For example, the first 100 pages are divided into thirds and each section follows Tony, Charis or Roz up to the exact moment when they meet for lunch. I can’t even remember the last time I read a book so driven by character development.

The idea of women protecting men from such predatory women as Zenia has an important focus in the book. But then, why should she care? At the same time, Tony, Charis, and Roz explore the idea of the unreasonableness of love. These women know they are strong and intelligent but still find themselves latched to the dependency for these men.

Previously I’ve read The Penelopiad and The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood and enjoyed both of these novels. I must confess though that I found The Robber Bride rather unwieldly, but perhaps I missed out on appreciating some of its finer points. Regardless though, I find myself a bit reluctant to return to Atwood any time soon.

Other opinions: Trish’s Reading Nook.


When you’re ready to go back to Atwood, read Alias Grace. It’s fabulous.

Comment by Christine

Christine: I definitely will return to Atwood at some point, and I’ll keep Alias Grace in mind!

Comment by bookchronicle

I haven’t read The Robber Bride, so can’t comment.

In view of your recent short story reading, I’d suggest Atwood’s most recent short story collection, Moral Disorder. It should reconcile you to her.

I can relate to that offputting reading experience though- in my case it happened with ian McEwan’s Saturday, and I haven’t read anything by him since.

Comment by Sarah

I’ve read some Atwoods before but other than Surfacing which I can barely remember, this is probably the least favorite of mine.

I remember reading The Robber Bride more than a decade ago. Back then I found it draining but right now I can’t articulate why as I vaguely remember the surprise of the three women when Zenia showed herself. Oh well.

I agree with Christine that Alias Grace is fabulous. I’ll pipe in for Cat’s Eye as well and her handful of short stories. And I guess it’s high time to reread The Handmaid’s Tale again. Like The Robber Bride, I’ve read that one years ago when I was on an Atwood phase. Hahaha!

Comment by Lightheaded

I read The Robber Bride way back in high school and I agree with what you said about how the characters can be so frustrating, yet you keep coming back to it. Although I don’t remember much from it (the only image that stood out was this part when Zenia killed one of the women’s chickens…), I do recall rooting for some kind of 3 on 1 showdown with Zenia.

I second the comments above: you need to check out Alias Grace. Though I’m not much into literary-type books anymore, I still remember my experience of reading Alias Grace (I thought it was creepy) and the fact that I can still recall all these images after all these years and all these books, well, that’s saying something. Highly recommended! Oh, and I also read that you’re a bookmooch addict. Bookmooch it (that is, if you haven’t read it already).

Comment by T Y

I read this years ago too and I don’t think you missed the good points – I don’t think there are any! But then I’ve never been able to get on with any Atwood other than the story collection Wilderness Tips. Even her widely acclaimed classic The Handmaid’s Tale left me cold. I think she and I will just have to agree to differ.

Comment by John Self

Sarah: You are spot on about Atwood’s most recent short story collection. I read the first story “The Bad News” ( about three times and loved it, but have yet to return to the remainder of the stories.

Lightheaded: I don’t think I’ll turn away from Atwood and I will be sure to keep Alias Grace and Cat’s Eye in mind. But draining is a perfect description of The Robber Bride!

T Y: I admit that I’m still drawn often to literary type books though I have been growing! Just this morning I started dipping into another Mercedes Lackey book. Over the past four years as an English major I have had so much literature drilled into my head I’m really starting to enjoy stretching across different genres.

John Self: Atwood definitely seems to be an author I always thought people loved or hated, but from some of these comments I wonder if Atwood is more of a “in a stage” author. Right now my experience has been hit and miss, some of her novels I like and I’ve enjoyed the short stories I’ve read but Robber Bride definitely left me winded.

Comment by bookchronicle

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