History: Published in 1993. There is wide speculation that the book is, at least in part, a roman-a-clef, and that the Zenia character is based loosely on Barbara Amiel, the real-life journalist and wife of Lord Black. A common cross-cultural fairy-tale framework in which the heroine's husband is kidnapped by a bewitching rival, initiating a long, arduous quest to reclaim him.
Plot: During their most recent outing, they see Zenia, a long-dead college classmate who had stolen, one by one, their respective beaux. The novel alternates between the present and flashbacks featuring the points of view of Tony, Charis, and Roz, respectively. Zenia has given each woman a different version of her biography, tailor-made to insinuate herself into their lives. No one version of Zenia is the truth, and the reader knows no more than the characters.
Their betrayals by Zenia are what initially bring the three together as friends and bind their lives together irrevocably; their monthly luncheons began after her funeral. The novel, like other works by Atwood, deals with power struggles between men and women; it is also a meditation on the nature of friendship, power, and trust between women. Zenia's character can be read as either the ultimate self-empowered woman, a traitor who abuses sisterhood, or simply a self-interested mercenary who cunningly uses the "war between the sexes" to further her own interests. One reading posits Zenia as a kind of guardian angel to the women, saving them from unworthy men.
Atwood claims that of all the characters she has written, she identifies most "with Zenia. She is the professional liar, and what else do fiction writers do but create lies that other people will believe?"
In the novel's present, Roz, Charis, and Tony finally each individually confront Zenia in a Toronto hotel room, where she tells each of them that the men they'd been with got what they deserved, and gives various versions of her earlier staged death, each as implausible as the accounts of her life. One of the four women never leaves that hotel alive. The novel itself leaves the reader questioning who was (or were) the victim(s) of life.
Review: Atwood’s language in this book is rich and gorgeously constructed, baring the souls of her characters while weaving a compelling mystery. Disturbing and dark at times, The Robber Bride evokes what is essentially human about all of us, including those emotions we are most likely to conceal. When Atwood shows us Zenia’s character, we cannot look away.
Opening Line: “The story of Zenia ought to begin when Zenia began.”
Closing Line: “Then she opens the door, and goes in to join the others.”
Quotes: “She looks like a very young old person, or a very old young person; but then, she’s looked that way ever since she was two.”
“There’s clean outside and there’s clean inside.”