Margaret Atwood Reading Month: The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder

For this second annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month hosted by Marcie of Buried in Print and Naomi of Consumed by Ink, I chose two of her works of fiction pretty much at random. The Robber Bride, one of her last few major novels that I hadn’t yet read, and Moral Disorder, a linked short story collection I’d not heard of before, both came my way for free and became my 19th and 20th Atwood books overall. Women’s fulfillment, especially the question of having children or not, and the threat of suicide are two themes that connect the two despite the 13 years between them.

 

The Robber Bride (1993)

Zenia is dead, to begin with. Or is she? Five years after her funeral, as Tony, Roz and Charis, the university frenemies from whom she stole lovers and money, are eating lunch at The Toxique, Zenia comes back. Much of the book delves back into the Toronto set’s history, with Tony seeming to get the most space and sympathy – she’s a lot like Nell (see below), so probably the most autobiographical character here, and the one I warmed to the most. Tony’s mother left and her father committed suicide, so she’s always been an unusual loner with a rich inner life, speaking and writing backwards (like Adah in The Poisonwood Bible) and becoming obsessed with battle logistics. Now, as a professor of history at her alma mater, she has a good reason to indulge that geeky hobby of keeping model battlefields in the basement.

I found this quite slow, especially through the middle stretch, such that its nearly 500 pages of small type often felt interminable. It didn’t help that I developed very little interest in Roz and Charis. The setup is based on a gender-reversed version of the fairy tale “The Robber Bridegroom,” about a handsome man who lures women into the woods and eats them. Zenia is the (almost literal) femme fatale: “Brilliant, and also fearsome. Wolfish, feral, beyond the pale.” The topic of toxic friendship ties in with Cat’s Eye, and the examination of gender roles feels like it’s edging towards something more radical: when late on a minor character comes out, Roz thinks that for the next generation “the fences once so firmly in place around the gender corrals are just a bunch of rusty old wire.”

A favorite passage:

“Very beautiful people have that effect, [Tony] thinks: they obliterate you. In the presence of Zenia she feels more than small and absurd: she feels non-existent.”

 

Moral Disorder (2006)

The title came from Atwood’s late partner, Graeme Gibson, who stopped writing novels in 1996 and gave her permission to reuse the name of his work in progress. It suggests that all is not quite as it should be. Then again, morality is subjective. Though her parents disapprove of Nell setting up a household with Tig, who is still married to Oona, the mother of his children, theirs ends up being a stable and traditional relationship; nothing salacious about it.

The first five and last two stories are in the first person, while a set of four in the middle is in the third person – including my favorites, “White Horse” and “The Entities,” two knockout stand-alones. Nell and Tig retreat to a farm for this segment, and Nell has to deal with her sister’s mental illness and her assumption that Tig doesn’t want to have more children. I also liked “The Art of Cooking and Serving,” in which Nell becomes a big sister at age 12. There are a few nothing-y stories, though, and I struggled to see this as having the main character all the way through – but that is probably part of the point: We have so many experiences, and change so much, in the course of a life that we feel we’ve become different people. This is about the memories and connections that last even as the externals alter beyond recognition.

Two favorite passages:

“Maybe she would grow cunning, up here on the farm. Maybe she would absorb some of the darkness, which might not be darkness at all but only knowledge. She would turn into a woman others came to for advice. She would be called in emergencies. She would roll up her sleeves and dispense with sentimentality, and do whatever blood-soaked, bad-smelling thing had to be done. She would become adept with axes.”

“All that anxiety and anger, those dubious good intentions, those tangled lives, that blood. I can tell about it or I can bury it. In the end, we’ll all become stories. Or else we’ll become entities. Maybe it’s the same.”

 

Have you read any of Margaret Atwood’s books recently?

Which two should I earmark for next year? (I reckon The Testaments and Stone Mattress)

21 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood Reading Month: The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder

  1. I read Robber Bride too long ago to comment on it, except that I remember not liking many of the characters.
    I read Moral Disorder more recently, and really enjoyed it. It was the first Atwood I’d read in a while and it reminded me of how much I like her writing. I loved the stories on the farm.
    Now I’m wondering how she comes up with her characters’ names… Tig, Oona, Charis, Roz…

    Those sound like good choices for next year! I think I liked the stories in Stone Mattress even better than the ones in Moral Disorder.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to hear you liked Stone Mattress even more — that bodes well! The farm stories were my favourites in Moral Disorder. Nells says Tig’s real name is Gilbert, and I want to say that he got his nickname from a battle or general — another link with Tony from Robber Bride — but I’d have to skim back through to check.

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  2. This is (one of) my problems with Atwood: I know I’ve read quite a few of her books but I find most of them so forgettable that I mix them up. I’m pretty sure I’ve read Cat’s Eye but I don’t know if I’ve also read The Robber Bride.

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    1. A lot of people have Cat’s Eye as a favourite Atwood, but it was very forgettable for me. I wonder if I would get more out of it on a rereading. Or maybe you’d have to have had an experience of childhood bullying for it to really resonate for you.

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  3. I’m embarrassed to admit I have read little Margaret Atwood–Alias Grace and Bodily Harm might be it. I’ve just never gotten into her style of writing, and the dystopia stuff doesn’t really do it for me. I should probably be flogged for that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bodily Harm is one I don’t know. I don’t much care for her dystopian stuff either. But she’s so versatile in terms of form and subject that I think there’s got to be at least one book for every reader. My favorite of hers (so far) is The Blind Assassin.

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  4. I love Margaret Atwood, I enjoyed The Robber Bride, though it was never a favourite, and I remember it only sketchily now. Moral Disorder is one I’ve not read, and have meant to acquire. I have loved other Atwood story collections.

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    1. My book club is interested in doing The Testaments sometime next year, so although I’ve been resistant I would be willing to read it for that. Even when Atwood isn’t entirely to my taste she’s certainly readable.

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  5. I reread The Robber Bride a couple of years ago and I felt like it was a different book from what I remembered of reading it shortly after publication. Zenia seemed so earthshatteringly awful at that time. But, since then, we’ve become more accustomed to having unlikeable/flawed/realistic characters in narratives that perhaps she doesn’t seem quite so remarkable now. Moral Disorder is one I’d like to reread (it doesn’t seem so long ago, but I guess it’s been about ten years). I’m glad you’ve been having fun reading through Atwood’s books with #MARM. November is such a busy reading month: it’s lovely to have company reading her works!

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