I finished Margaret Atwood’s “The Robber Bride” this past weekend, and I’m left with conflicting feelings on the book. I had read and enjoyed “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Cat’s Eye” in high school, so I was looking forward to this book. (Warning: some spoilers ahead.)
The good from a structural standpoint: Atwood is a master at balancing prose and poetry. She has a wonderful ability with phrasing. You can take a single sentence or paragraph out of context and allow the words to roll around your mind for a while. I was engaged enough by the story to not be brought out by her style, but I enjoyed the rhythm and cleverness of it all the same.
The bad structurally: I felt like she confined herself too strictly to a self-imposed cadence. Maybe she was influenced by the fairy tale structure she pulled her source material from (“The Robber Bridegroom”) or maybe she just did it as an exercise in self-restraint, but at times the flow of the story seemed hindered. I also did not enjoy the ending of the book. I felt it dragged on. I see what Atwood was going for, but I’m not sure it served the rest of the story or her characters well.
The good from a character and plot standpoint: The story was engaging. I found myself sucked into the downward spiral of the characters despite my slight disgust.
The bad from a character and plot standpoint: I did not feel connected with any of the characters in this book. The men were all manchildren, simpering and whiny and ridiculous. The three main female characters clung to their men in a ridiculous way, all while trying to come to terms with their own selves, and the villain Zenia had no redeeming qualities but rather was a stock character. This was probably what Atwood was going for, as again she was pulling from fairy tales, but it made for a rather two-dimensional character. Also, I feel like Atwood at this point in her life felt disgust for the entire human race. She writes from a feminist lens but simultaneously was mocking feminism through her characters.
And here is my utterly personal emotional response. I read literature occasionally because I like to challenge my mind, and I feel that it is healthy to be uncomfortable by what you read/view occasionally. But I hate that each of the main characters had such horrible childhoods. I hate reading about children being abused sexually and beaten. I’m someone who cries when I read a news article about babies and children and animals that die tragically or are hideously scarred (physically or emotionally) by an adult’s hand. It’s unnatural. But it happens. So reading books like this help me to acknowledge the dark side of humanity, the side that I would love to see us as a species rise above but I’m not sure we ever will. So while this bothered me, it was like choking down medicine that I know needs to be taken occasionally.
But I am also bothered by feminist authors who don’t bother to make any redeeming men in their stories because I know several good men personally and feel like dismissing that potential is a bad road to travel down (and I feel the same way when male authors marginalize women – if you can’t write for the opposite sex, then stick to only writing about your own!). Characters need to be more than paper dolls, and when you have one gender well-fleshed and the other flat, it takes away from the effect of the book.
I enjoyed this book in some ways, but I will probably never read it again. When I want challenging, poetic, feminist literature and poetry, I will continue to turn to Deena Metzger’s body of work instead.
Anyway, final thoughts – this is a well-crafted novel and worth the read, but overall I’m left feeling less than satisfied.