Thursday, October 29, 2015

'The Robber Bride' and the Weight of Female Friendship

We’re going surprisingly highbrow today, chickadees, because today we are talking about that classic Margaret Atwood novel The Robber Bride.* Why? Well, because it’s almost Halloween, and in a very weird and roundabout way, this novel is, to me, basically the most Halloween-y thing I can think of to cover.

No, it’s not about ghosts or goblins or ghouls, no there’s no overt horror, and no, it’s not set in the fall or anytime around Halloween. It’s not even very scary. But this novel is Halloween-y to me because it’s about witches. It’s about women in our culture who fill the same role that witches played for hundreds of years. Women who are forced to “do it for themselves”, women who come together in groups to band against the evil forces of their lives, women who live on the outskirts of what we consider polite society and who are not confined by the restraints the rest of us live by.

I mean, in its most basic form, this book is about three women vanquishing a ghost. It's just that the ghost isn't so much a reality as it is a manifestation of their own hopes and dreams that they must confront in order to move on. And that's pretty interesting.

The Robber Bride is about three women who are all connected by a fourth. The three women - Tony, Charis, and Roz - are all middle-aged when the book starts and have known each other for years and years. They went to college together, though that's not quite where they know each other from. They know each other because over the years each of them has had a catastrophic run-in with Zenia, another woman they went to college with. Going through the decades, the book documents each of their battles with and against Zenia, and shows how this women brought them together by ruining their lives.

I find that absolutely fascinating. It's clear from the get-go that Zenia is bad news and that the women are better off without her in their lives, but it's really interesting to me how the book shows us that each women had her heart broken by Zenia but ended up with a much better life. Like, Zenia screwed them all over, destroyed the lives they had, but because of that they ended up with lives that are sweeter and more whole. 

The book starts with the women in middle-age, like I said, meeting as they do once a month in a local restaurant. The three women have very little in common on the surface. Tony is a tiny "bird-like" academic who hides behind her glasses and prefers to intellectualize everything, while Charis is an overgrown hippie, a sweet and loving flower-child who the others worry lacks emotional strength. And Roz is a "ball-buster", a middle-aged woman who runs her own magazine and is very externally successful. They wouldn't ordinarily be friends, but their run-ins with Zenia over the years have bonded them so closely they feel a bit like family.

It's at one of these meetings that the women get the shock of their lives. Zenia, who has been presumed dead for years, is in the restaurant. The women freak the crap out. First off, they thought she was dead. They were at the funeral. Second, what must she want now? What could she be doing back in their lives? What is there left for her to ruin?

Then the story takes us back through each woman's interactions with Zenia in a rough chronological order. Not to go too far into detail, but they go like this:

Tony met Zenia in college and fell quickly in friend-love. Zenia and her then-boyfriend West were cool and charming and the most interesting people she'd ever met. She and Zenia were thick as thieves, and Tony told Zenia all her deepest secrets, about her parents dying and the money she didn't want to spend and all that. Zenia then turned around and manipulated Tony into giving her a massive check, then skipped town, leaving Tony betrayed and West heartbroken.

Now Tony and Wes are together and Tony is pretty happy in her life. But she's terrified that Zenia has come back to steal West away from her. She's so worried that West will go along happily because he never really loved her, he just needed someone to lean on when Zenia went away. Tony is most afraid of abandonment and she's so scared that it'll happen again.

Meanwhile, Charis met Zenia years later when they were in their late twenties or so. Charis was living with a cute draft-dodger from America when Zenia appeared on her doorstep all beat up and needing care. Zenia had cancer, or so she told Charis, so Charis cared for her, kept her safe, and slowly worked her way in between Charis and her draft-dodger boyfriend. 

Like with Tony, Zenia got Charis to tell her all her deepest secrets, like that Charis used to be called Karen and was horrifically sexually abused as a child and that Charis' now boyfriend is a draft-dodger who is wanted by the US government.

Then the other shoe drops and Zenia and the draft-dodger are gone, leaving Charis pregnant and alone.  She has no idea what happened, if Zenia was ever really sick or if she was turning the draft-dodger over to the government or if they ran away together... She never gets answers, but she does get help. Looking for information on Zenia, Charis ends up calling Tony, who enlists Roz to help take care of the pregnant and poor Charis. Charis gives birth to a daughter and suddenly has two best friends to help her through her troubles.

Finally, Roz's story is the most interesting because Roz was so well-warned about Zenia. She knew all of them in college and was aware of exactly what Zenia did to both Tony and Charis. But somehow she can't resist Zenia's allure. Zenia shows up as a writer for her magazine, and Roz hires her because she's so perfect for the role. Zenia's great at it and readership goes up, until one day she defrauds the magazine and runs off with Roz's husband.

Roz is furious, of course, but also sad. It gets worse when Zenia leaves her husband too and he goes a little nuts looking for her. He ends up disappearing from a sailboat on Lake Michigan (if memory serves), and that's the last that's seen of him. But Roz still has her kids and she has Tony and Charis to help bear the weight.

Obviously none of them are thrilled to see Zenia again.

Tony is worried that Zenia is back to steal West; Charis is worried that Zenia is here to destroy her soul; and Roz is terrified that Zenia is here to consume her beloved son like she did her husband. As it turns out, all of them are wrong.

Zenia is here because Zenia is here. It really doesn't end up more explained than that. Each woman goes in to confront Zenia, and possibly kill her, and yet each of them comes out with the realization that not only is Zenia not worth it, she's also not nearly as clever as they'd given her credit for. She was never out to be the malevolent force of their lives, they were all just convenient means to ends.

Maybe one of the things I like most in the book is that Zenia is never explained. The reader only knows what Tony, Charis, and Roz know, and what they know is very little, most of it conflicting. So Zenia exists not really as a character, but as a collection of identities that these other women have projected onto her. She became what each of them fear most and wreaked havoc with their lives. It's just that in so doing, she also gave them lives which were much better.

She is the reason that Tony ended up with West, the love of her life. She's also the reason why Tony became confident enough to assert herself as an academic. She might have taken away Charis' boyfriend, but said boyfriend was a deadbeat who never treated her well anyway and was deeply ambivalent about the baby they were having. And Roz's husband? Was a jerk to her and needed very little incentive to cheat. So while it's too much of a stretch to say that Zenia was doing all of them a favor by coming through their lives like a demolition crew, she didn't destroy anything that was too vital to their survival.

But going back to the point above, I guess I think of Zenia as a witch. Not because she's mean or magic or anything like that, but because she's unpredictable and seems to be playing a game that only she knows the rules of and only she can see the cards. Zenia is a mystery made up of other people's conceptions of who she is, and that's so witchy to me.

I mean, insofar as we all agree that witch is really less a thing about medieval ladies who could do magic and more about uppity women who were burned to death because they didn't fit inside the social order.

Don't get me wrong, Zenia is a horrible person. She's an aggressively awful human being and the things she does to people in this story seem to be just the tip of the iceberg. At one point it's insinuated that she's smuggling cocaine and heroin for a Russian cartel. Like, the woman is terrifying. When the news comes back that she died in an explosion in Lebanon, no one is particularly surprised. And then when she turns up out of the blue five years later miraculously not dead, it's surprising and yet somehow not.

I guess I mean that Zenia feels magical in a weird subversive way. Not a good kind of magical that makes people feel nice, but this perverse magic that helps good things happen by bad means. There's something so fascinating in how Zenia makes their lives better by ruining them. Some weird sort of magic that has to destroy in order to create. And Zenia is never explained, which means you can read into her whatever you want. I prefer to think of her as an elemental force, neither good nor bad, but always bringing balance in her wake.

Or maybe I'm over philosophizing this. Maybe it just comes down to a simple answer: I like The Robber Bride and Zenia makes me think of witches. Happy Halloween.

Yeah, that seems about right.

*We are not going to be discussing the 2007 movie adaptation because I have not seen it and probably won't - just saying, when I picture Zenia, I imagine more of an Eva Green than a Mary Louise Parker type...