It is October 23, 1990 and the setting is an avant-garde restaurant in Toronto. A tall well-dressed woman walks into the Toxique at lunchtime. Her name is Zenia. She is tall, well-formed and about 50 years old, but she looks like she is only 30.
Yes, it’s Zenia, beautiful as ever. The three middle-aged women having lunch at a quiet back table try to control their emotions; they nod to each other in shock. A single thought is going through each of their minds: “but she is dead—we buried her 5 years ago.”
Margaret Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride is the story of beautiful and enigmatic Zenia. It is also a story of love, friendship and mutual support told by three of her victims: Tony (history professor), Roz (rich president of a popular woman’s magazine) and Charis (dreamer, clairvoyant, and healer).
Tony, Roz and Charis have lunch once a month at different restaurants in Toronto, always being careful of Charis’ budget. The October lunch was at the Toxique; Roz’s treat. At some time during lunch their talk turned to Zenia, but on this fateful day they were stunned speechless when she walked into the room, seemingly back from the dead.
While spinning this story, Atwood keeps it light and tucks in a bit of the history of Canada. She fills the story with an excellent range of interesting characters and even plays homage to one of the first Canadian social activists and novelist Nellie McClung.
The title of the novel comes from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale The Robber Bridegroom, one of the more violent and graphic of the tales that features dismemberment and cannibalism. Fortunately, those extremes of physical violence are missing in Atwood’s tale.
Zenia is the title character of this novel; she is the “robber bride”. Zenia is a thief, small time criminal and swindler, and she is smart and charming. She is not a violent person; she does her damage more subtly. She gets close to her victims through clever lies and deception and then she lures them into danger—suddenly she springs her trap and they lose something valuable: husband, boy-friend, self-respect, money. Whatever Zenia wants, she gets; no one stands in her way.
Tony, Roz and Charis first met Zenia in the 70s when all four lived in McClung Hall a Toronto college dormitory. Tony was attracted to her because Zenia was as smart as, but not smarter than Tony. Eventually Tony fell victim; she wrote a term paper for Zenia–big mistake.
The men of this story: Tony’s husband is West who is a musicologist, he is weak willed and dependent—easy prey for Zenia. Handsome, virile Mitch was “old money broke” before he married Roz. Mitch had pride and arrogance; he was an easy mark for Zenia. And then there was Billy, a draft dodger from the big country south of Canada, who takes advantage of Charis’ easy going good nature, but is no match for Zenia. One day Billy disappears from Charis’ life forever.
So much for the cast of characters: the men are pretty much clue-less when it comes to Zenia so the woman will have to deal with her on their own. By chance they discover their mutual connection to each other and form a support group. They continued to meet regularly even after Zenia’s death—thus, setting the scene for the shocking lunch at the Toxique that opens the novel.
I recently re-read The Robber Bride and found it as timely and as captivating as it was when I discovered it in the 90’s at a used bookstore. Clearly, the world has changed since 1993, when the novel was first published. The Vietnam draft dodgers are no longer news, but people are pretty much the same and sex is still good copy.
Here are the author’s words describing the day of the fateful lunch, October 23, 1990:
“It’s a Tuesday. The Soviet Bloc is crumbling, the old maps are dissolving, the Eastern tribes are on the move again across shifting borders. There’s trouble in the Gulf, the real estate market is crashing, and a large hole has developed in the ozone layer. The sun moves into Scorpio, Tony has lunch at the Toxique with her two friends Roz and Charis, a slight breeze blows in over Lake Ontario, and Zenia returns from the dead.”
Tony, the history professor, loves her husband West fiercely and she is protective of his well-being. When she met him years ago, he was the first boy who wasn’t overwhelmed by her studious behavior and intellect. She fell for him immediately. Her love held steadfast even after West left her for Zenia.
Tony reclaimed the doleful West when Zenia discarded him and Tony nurtured him back to mental health and eventually they were married. She hasn’t forgotten Zenia:
“She frequently thinks of Zenia, more frequently than when she was alive. Zenia dead is less a threat, and doesn’t have to be shoved away, shoved back into the spidery corner where Tony keeps her shadows.”
Elsewhere in Toronto on the day of the fateful lunch, Roz was finishing breakfast with her teenage twin daughters, her 22 year old son was still asleep; and on the Island, Charis finished her meditation and rushed to catch the ferry, which takes her to work as sales assistant in a novelty store.
When Zenia’s memorial service had been held in Toronto, the three women were there. There were few mourners:
“Men mostly, with their coat collars turned up. They avoided the front row and kept trying to get behind one another, as if they didn’t want to be seen.”
A man calling himself Zenia’s lawyer read a short tribute. While listening, Tony scanned the audience: there was no sign of Roz’s runaway husband Mitch, nor was Charis’ boy friend Billy in sight. West was not there either; Tony hadn’t told him of the service or that Zenia was dead.
Now that Zenia is returned, the three women have no doubt that they and their families will be her target. What will she want of them? What will be their response? Those are the questions that Margaret Atwood develops so skillfully in the remaining chapters of The Robber Bride.
The story ends as it began with Tony, Roz and Charis having lunch in the Toxique. As usual, Zenia is a topic of their conversation, but this time she will not come walking through the door. They are certain of that. This is a great novel, a page-turner.
Salman Rushdie reviewed The Robber Bride in 1993 just after it was published. In the reviewer’s words:
“A BEAUTIFUL, greedy, ruthless devil-woman enters the lives of three other women, exploits them shamelessly, steals their men, gets bored, moves on. Then, apparently, she dies. The three women, all still obsessed by their dead rival, go to her funeral in the spirit in which movie folk once attended the burial of the mogul Cohn, to make sure the bastard was really dead. In spite of this carefulness on the part of the tormented Three, the One comes back to life, appearing to them one day in a restaurant during lunch. Final reckonings are at hand. Men – so easy to lose, so hard to find – are once again at risk. Confrontations occur. Murder is contemplated. And in the end . . . but the end should not be revealed.”
These are beautiful words by a writer who can surely recognize a good story when he reads one. Mr. Rushdie must have liked the book. The full review is online: The best fears of our lives: ‘The Robber Bride’ (1993).
Day 79: The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (1993).