From the outside, Tony, Charis, and Roz appear to be old college friends who reunite for the occasional ladies’ luncheon. In reality, they’re a survivors’ support group: they are wounded veterans of the interminable War of the Sexes, tattered survivors of a thermonuclear device named Zenia. They cling to one another as veterans of any war do: because they are the only ones who truly understand what they’ve been through. No amount of telling, had they the stomach to tell it, can ever sufficiently explain the hell of Zenia to someone who hasn’t experienced her first hand.
Zenia is a ravishingly beautiful woman with a gift for telling just the right lie to get her victims to open their doors, hearts, and lives to her. She mimics and mirrors her prey, flattering them while playing off their deepest fears and pain, ingratiating herself so thoroughly that they never see the knife coming. Zenia is well away with her prize (money and menfolk, generally) before the victim notices the protruding stiletto. Some, indeed, never recognize it for what it is, but go on believing Zenia’s lies, to their doom.
The title is a play on the Brothers Grimm tale ‘The Robber Bridegroom’, and the book is constructed like a fairy tale: three ‘sisters’ undergo the trial of the Ogress, which increases in pain and difficulty with each iteration. Tony, the first to confront Zenia (and therefore the youngest), suffers a broken husband, but one that remains with her. Charis, who might have learned from Tony’s experience, had they been closer at the time, suffers a disappeared mate, fate unknown. Roz, who by the time she tangles with Zenia should have plenty of reason to know better, enters the challenge willingly, and suffers commensurately for her hubris.
The book reads like a gossipy, juicy piece of chick lit about women banding together in the face of perfidious men and traitorous frenemies, but it is still an Atwood: these characters and their interactions are more than they appear on the surface. Is Zenia the unstoppable man-eater of our heroines’ imaginations, or is she something much more complex, perhaps a fairy godmother in malevolent disguise? Her actions, for all the hurt and disruption they cause, rid the three friends of faithless, feckless men and encourage their bonds of sister-friendship. The end of the book leaves the interpretation up to the reader, but makes it pretty clear that something more (or possibly less?) was going on than the three friends perceived.
The structure of the book itself is mirrored, giving the reader the sense of descending into the underworld with the heroine and re-ascending with whatever trophies and scars she might bear. We enter through Tony’s perspective in Onset, proceed with the trio through The Toxique, into the three central tales of each woman’s encounter with Zenia, out through The Toxique once more, and end with our guide Tony, in Outcome. Have we progressed directly through the tale in an orderly manner? Have we gotten turned around somewhere in the middle and come out the way we came in? Are we back where we started, or does this exit just look like that entrance?
You can read the book at face value and enjoy a quick, engaging story about women you feel you could actually know. (The detailed, convincing characterization of the central trio is one of the book’s great strengths.) But I recommend reading it with an eye to the underlying mythology–I think you’ll find it rewarding.