I just finished reading Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride for the third time. I have a thing about re-reading books: if I liked it, I've probably read it more than once. (For a while a few years ago I even tried reading things twice in a row to see if it saved me any time, but mainly it was just kind of boring.) In fact, even if I didn't like it the first time around, I frequently find myself reading it again later. Sometimes (fairly often) I hate something initially and like it the second, which is exactly what happened with this book. The first time I read it, I think I was still gushing over Atwood's The Blind Assassin, which is still by far my favorite of her books, and I think it made me unable to appreciate this perhaps less showy novel.
The Blind Assassin has a complicated structure, mixing present-day narrative with omniscient history, science fiction, and personal history. The Robber Bride doesn't go to such lengths, but it does have a very structured format which I've come to appreciate. The novel follows three friends who have all been hurt in personal ways by Zenia, a mysterious woman with no definable past. Each of the three friends serves as a narrator, and each goes through her present-day life, her past relationship with Zenia, her childhood, and then back to the present for the conclusion of the events started in the first part of the book. I didn't much care for it initially, as I said; I couldn't understand why the women were friends, why none of them could get over the damage Zenia had done them, what the point was. It gave me a headache. But now, after a few more readings, I've come to see the interest that lies beyond those things. I love each narrator's distinct voice: Tony, a diminutive historian obsessed with war and too academic for her own good (it's a very Tony book to me, so I'm inclined to see her as the main narrator); Charis, a haphazard spiritualist incapable of expressing a concrete thought in a way that her friends can understand; Roz, a boisterously cheery businesswoman who wears her heart on her sleeve but also hides behind her clown facade. There's very little dialogue, and the majority of the text is dealing directly with the characters' inner narration. Atwood doesn't shy away from the flaws in her characters, but those flaws are mostly visible from the viewpoint of others. Tony is fascinating when I'm in her head, but scary and hard to relate to when I'm listening to Charis or Roz, and so on.
So while this book doesn't pack the punch of some of Atwood's more narratively-driven works, I think it's worth it for the details. There are so many lovely phrases: the "aromatic, painful dark" of childhood summer camps, an ugly and "heavily artistic" flower pot, "You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman" to describe our self-policing of beauty. I don't know how many more times I'll have to read this book over the course of my life; this time it seemed oddly involuntary and I tried to resist and failed, so maybe a few more readings will happen. But hopefully I'll keep finding small reasons to enjoy it more.