It's been a while since I've read anything by Margaret Atwood, but since my first novel of 2011 was by her (The Edible Woman), I figured I should start 2012 in the same way. The Robber Bride was never a novel that really stood out to me based on the blurb on the back, but I got it at a library sale for practically nothing and it's still by Atwood, meaning it was bound to be good. I was not disappointed.
The Robber Bride presents itself initially as being about a woman, Zenia, though it's really about three women whose lives Zenia damages. The novel is constructed through these three women's experiences with Zenia and each other and themselves - space is allotted equally to each into equivalent sections that tell of their childhoods, time with Zenia, and time with each other. Though this may seem too structured for some, I liked the predictability - it gave me something to look forward to. The women are Tony, a tiny and quirky professor of military history; Charis, spiritualistic and sweet, though sometimes simple; and Roz, a business tycoon who puts on a facade every day.
What really struck me about this novel was how aggressively feminist it felt without making a feminist agenda the obvious point. We are faced with three women who are incredibly strong and independent while being weakened and diminished by the men in their lives and another woman, who appears extremely powerful, yet uses that power to hurt others and never truly relate. Though the book pretends to be about her, we know nothing of substance about Zenia, but about Tony, Charis, and Roz we know so much. They are stuck in an in-between generation, during which women are expected to be independent but still haven't been released from the past way of doing things. They go out in the world and do things and provide, but when they get home, they still have to cook the dinner and clean the house (much as my own mother did). Even Charis, who is easily mocked even by her own friends, is more self-sufficient than most people, working multiple jobs and growing her own food and taking care of more people than just herself. They are truly superwomen but should they be? They are overworked and overtired, and get very little thanks for it. However, Roz and Charis both have daughters, of the next generation in which women don't have to be everything. They are strong but comfortable with it, okay without men, able to choose their path rather than having everything dumped on them.
This wasn't the most amazing, life-changing novel I've ever read, but it was good and it sucked me in and it made me think. Beware though - the men are awful (the worst of them shares my husband's name, which was unfortunate and elicited some comments from me about what would happen if my husband ever behaved like him). That may be the point though, because it's them that make Zenia the horrible women that she is. I definitely recommend this, though maybe not for somebody new to Atwood.