Tales of a `Man-Eating' Woman
AN age in which a writer like Margaret Atwood is accorded the status of a ``lady oracle,'' seems to have lost (or abandoned) all sense of literary proportion. Productive, versatile, a poet and critic as well as a fiction writer, Atwood is probably Canada's best-known contemporary author. Her novels generally receive front-page reviews in book supplements, her still-expanding oeuvre is studied in college courses, and a Margaret Atwood Society, duly affiliated with the Modern Language Association, publishes an annual newsletter. Academic essayists diligently dissect her themes and symbols, gravely pondering the deep significance of her by-and-large middlebrow, unmysterious, straightforward writings.Skip to next paragraph
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Although the critical overvaluation of Atwood may be hard to account for, it's not hard to understand her popular appeal.
From the sly comedy of ``The Edible Woman'' (1969) and ``Lady Oracle'' (1976) to the sober, even grim, realism of ``Life Before Man'' (1979) and ``Bodily Harm'' (1981), her work recognizably mirrors the age we inhabit. But when she assumes the role of oracle in works like ``The Handmaid's Tale'' (1985), it becomes clear that Atwood lacks the intellectual substance and subtlety necessary to launch a sustained critique of contemporary society and culture.
Atwood's eighth novel, ``The Robber Bride,'' is a cross between a Fay Weldon-style fantasy-satire featuring a preposterous ``She-devil'' and a Margaret Drabble-ish collage documenting the life histories of three women who first met as university students. The story opens in present-day Toronto, with three women in their late 40s meeting for lunch at a punk-style hangout called the Toxique. Petite, clever, black-haired Tony is a military historian. (Although her male colleagues had to overcome their prejudices to accept her, it's the department feminists who remain totally hostile to the very notion of studying a subject as evil as war.) Gentle, fuzzy-minded Charis works in a shop selling New Age paraphernalia. Dynamic, earthy Roz is the highly competent head of a business built up by her father.
What all three have in common is having lost the men in their lives to the wiles of an unscrupulous woman called Zenia, the ``robber bride'' of the title. Tony was Zenia's first victim, and the only one to get her man back. Poor Charis still doesn't know what's become of Billy, the Kentucky-born draft dodger she sheltered in the 1970s, who took off with Zenia and was never seen again. But Roz knows all too well what happened to her husband, Mitch, a standard-issue philanderer who always returned to his wife and family - until Zenia got her hands on him.
Having attended funeral services for Zenia some years ago, the three lunching ladies are understandably horrified when the not-so-dear departed one walks into the restaurant. What unfolds next, in the three long sections that form the novel's central part, are stories of how each of these very different women managed to be charmed, tricked, and betrayed by Zenia.