The Robber Bride is one of those books that is thoroughly engrossing, one which creates characters and a world which we don't want to see end.
The book is about 3 different, good-hearted women and the way in which their lives intersect and twist and entwine around another, powerful, sexual, and almost witch-like woman, Zenia.
First there is Roz (a wealthy, robust woman who came from money, but works hard as an executive for a magazine, is married to "Mitch," and has three chidren, two young twin girls and an older boy), then Tony (a shy, bookish history professor with a lover named West, she prefers to live in the dusty struggles of the distant past, or at least she is most comfortable there), and finally Charis, or "Karen," (a very fragile, wispy woman who lives in a run-down house on an island near the city, and who has an American draft-dodger lover, Billy, and later, a daughter, August).
What brings these women together is one woman, Zenia. Zenia is a mysterious woman, who we learn quite a bit about, (for one thing, we learn that she is incredibly powerful, and kind of like a black hole with the power to suck in unassuming men into her sexual web, no matter who they are, or what relationships existed for the men previously), but who remains a sort of shadowy enigma. Atwood makes it clear that Zenia is no ordinary woman. Through Zenia's lips come all sorts of stories about her origins. She was a Russian emigre who was a child prostitute after her mother died. She is a busty, exotic waitress who men cannot keep their eyes (or hands) (or hearts) (or declarations of undying love) off of. She is a ghost, the ghost of a woman who was killed in a far-off land while working as a photographer covering the war. She is an Eastern European goddess, with eyes and lips and a body that could sink a thousand ships. Zenia is all of these things, and many, many more. She is a mysterious, mystical force, a dark velvet magnet for the imagination, the Id of woman personified, Eve in the garden. She is also, or she can be, very, very evil, and like a storm she leaves bodies, hearts, limbs, tears, strewn behind her in her wake. She pulls a man, a woman, a Person, into her life, and then spits them out and disappears, only to appear again, in a different guise, in a different story, carrying with her the seeds of a different past, to plant them into another victim. A sort of metaphorical vampire. And the women in the book, who encounter her time and again, with years in between sometimes, swear to themselves, (and later, to each other), that this time, *this time,* they will not let her in. They know that their loves, their families, their hopes and dreams, their very lives are at stake. But it's not so easy to turn their back on her as they would like. She's the kind of person, the kind of myth, that is impossible to ignore. She is so powerful, so strong a force, that three otherwise intelligent women can't help but answer the knocking door, can't help but let her in, "just for a minute," "just for a small favor." And like the hunter that she is, Zenia worms her way inside, and greedily feeds on the marrow of all that is sacred to them, all that is theirs. Atwood creates a character here who wears a human cloak to hide the wolf inside her. Fascinating.
It's true, the book is really about the three other women, their struggles, their loves, their attempts to make a full and satisfying life for themselves in the world. To be happy with themselves, to find lasting love, or try to, to bring children into the world and create families, homes.
But the character that stuck with me, I have to say, is Zenia. I found her a fascinating creation, and proof yet again of Atwood's measurable talent as a writer and of her boundless imagination in creating her characters. Atwood is known for mixing elements of fairy tales into her work (the title of this book is even based on the fairy tale, "The Robber Bridegroom.") I think she enjoys mixing things up, and making her villain a woman, instead of a man, like we are so used to in our culture. As a feminist, I think Atwood wants to present women that are multi-faceted and not just good and quiet and motherly and sweet, like we are so often expected to be. I think Atwood fans will be delighted with this novel, and I highly recommend it to fans of feminist fiction. To enjoy this book the most, I think you have to think of Atwood as a Storyteller first (as in around the campfire, shadows everywhere, strange crackling behind you in the forest), realist fiction writer second. Zenia is a *myth*, which is what I don't think some people who've read the novel completely understood.