Wednesday, February 15, 2017

All the Zenias We Have Known

I have spent much of my reading this past week with Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride.  I am fairly sure that I read it when it first came out, and maybe once or twice after that, but probably not at any point after 1997 or so. 

Interesting to think about what a different person I was, in many ways, when I first read it:  a new Ph.D., working in a community college, in my late 20's, rehabbing wrecks of houses that we bought from the VA when they were repossessed.  My spouse and I lived with 2 friends and their pets in our communal living experiment.

So, looking back, it's not surprising that I identified with the character of Charis, who tried to care for everyone (draft dodgers, chickens, customers at the new age store where she works, and the manipulative Zenia).  Charis, with her vegetarian diet, her growing of veggies, her living in a drafty house and trying to make it homey.

Now I might feel more identified with Tony, ensconced in her comfortable marriage to a college boyfriend, edging ever closer to retirement, her academic interests that baffle her colleagues.  I'm not as interested in the history of war as she is, but I understand what it's like to have interests shared by absolutely no one in one's social orbits.

I find Roz fascinating, perhaps an alternate life Kristin, with her feminist magazine and her various business interests, along with interesting children who both mother her and exasperate her.  It's hard to relate to her interest in fashion, although the fact that fashion betrays her is something familiar to me.  Her feelings of inferiority that fly in the face of her successes--that, too, feels familiar, although for Roz, it's played out in the person of her husband, not her career.

I think of this book and Zenia, this book's warning about the people who will worm their way into the safe fortresses we think we've fortified and then wreck it.  The Zenias I have known have been different--not as effectual, thank goodness.  But I do feel like I've known more Zenia-lite people than should be statistically likely to come into the life of one person.

I've been doing a bit of soul searching even before reading this book, but let me put it in the terms of this book.  Am I too Charis-like, unwilling to see facts that are plain to everyone else?  Or are we all in the same boat, only willing to see evil and lesser treachery in hindsight.  Ah, hindsight, when everything is so clear.

This book should be a comfort to me, along with being a warning bell, because it shows how skillful the manipulators are.  I was fascinated to see how Zenia knows just what details will win over her victims.  This one needs to rescue the distressed, this one needs to know facts about her father, this one will believe this story about the past, while the other one needs a different story.

I'm still thinking about this novel, from the vantage point of a different place in my life.  I want to believe that this novel teaches us that we become less vulnerable as we come into midlife.  We are less concerned with what others think, and having been victimized before, we are less likely to believe the manipulators.  We become more secure in ourselves, and thus, less vulnerable.

But I suspect that if I read the last 100 pages again, I'd see it somewhat differently--we're still vulnerable:  witness how the characters come close to losing it all as they confront Zenia near the end; notice how Zenia can still manipulate them with much the same traps that she's tried before.

In my focus on the characters, let me not forget to praise the writing itself.  I love the imagery:  Tony ponders various wars throughout the book, the ways that wars are won and the many ways that wars can be lost.  I love how Atwood captures particular times in history.  I love the quirks of the characters, the ways that Atwood gives them depth.  The book is an English major's delight, the layer upon layer of meaning.

I stopped by the library last night.  I wanted Atwood's The Stone Mattress so that I could reread the short story with these characters--but it wasn't nearly as satisfying.  Next on my reading list:  Atwood's latest book--yes, it's back to dystopia for me.

And then I hope to read Margaret Drabble's latest sooner rather than later.  I feel lucky that so many of my favorite writers from my youth are still writing such vibrant work.  I'm like Tony in that way too, finding early morning solace in pursuits (mostly academic) first loved in college, still satisfying decades later.

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