The Robber Bride
by Margaret Atwood
Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 466 pp., $23.50
You could describe Margaret Atwood as a Canadian Margaret Drabble, only more optimistic and funnier—or anyway funny more often. Of course such a comparison would be unfair to both novelists, but the temptation to make it is there. Both are witty and serious; both believe that goodness is what matters; both are wickedly skillful at defining characters through their environment and accessories, not just physical, but intellectual as well; both take trouble to work out melodramatic and not always convincing plots; and both produce riveting page-turners for thinking, well-intentioned women.
Atwood is thought of as a feminist writer. In fact, The Robber Bride has been hailed as a break-through exhibiting the latest, improved model of female liberation, with women having the right to be bad; in earlier models they had to be good, badness being reserved for men. Zenia, the robber bride, is bad through and through: a liar, blackmailer, drug pusher, and gratuitous seductress. She seduces the men belonging to the three women who take turns at being the focus of the story. Tony, Charis, and Roz—like Esther, Alix, and Liz in Drabble’s The Radiant Way—can be read to represent mind, soul, and body, respectively.
Tony is an under-sized military historian; she teaches at the university in Toronto, where the story is set. Her casseroles come from the 1960 edition of the Joy of Cooking and she wears childish Peter Pan collars. In her basement she has a relief map of Europe, on which, at the start of the book, she is reenacting the defeat of Otto II, the tenth-century Holy Roman Emperor. She has put “cloves for the Germanic tribes, red peppercorns for the Vikings, green peppercorns for the Saracenes, white ones for the Slavs. The Celts are coriander seeds,” and so on. Upstairs Tony has West, a wimpish musicologist who has never quite recovered from his affair with Zenia. Zenia stole him from Tony many years ago, got tired of him, and threw him out (this is her pattern). West crept back to Tony. They got married, but the marriage is not passionate: more a matter of holding hands for comfort. Neither is sexually attractive; both know it.
Goofy Charis lives alone in a ramshackle cottage on an island in Lake Ontario. She worries about people’s auras and her own electrical field, and works in a shop called Radiance, selling crystals, seashells, incense, organic body oils, Oriental jewelry, tapes of New Age music, and books on “Health Secrets of the Aztecs.” Another of Atwood’s needlesharp, ironic, and affectionate lists. At the time of the Vietnam War, Charis shelters an American draft dodger, or so she thinks. Billy is actually wanted for drug running (in a small way). Zenia steals him from Charis, uses him as a runner in her own drug dealing affairs, and sheds him as she shed West. Charis is left to have his baby, who grows up to be a hard-edged girl with yuppie ambitions and a hard-edged …