Ruth Patchett has a good life. Her husband Bobbo tells her so. Ruth is lucky to have such a good-looking husband. The neighbours often remark on it. With so little self confidence, it's no surprise that Ruth falls apart when Bobbo begins an affair with the romantic fiction writer Mary Fisher.
Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She Devil follows Ruth Patchett's journey in the aftermath of her husband's desertion. It's Bobbo who calls Ruth a she devil, and her acceptance of his accusation sets her free from the downtrodden life she has led up to then. Ruth sets about transforming herself and her life, appropriating power, and in so doing, she exacts revenge on the lovers.
Ruth is the protagonist and narrates some of the story, but her husband and the 'other woman' are strong characters too. Bobbo is nasty and self-centred, insisting on discussing his affair with Ruth, saying, ‘If it hurts you, I’m sorry. But let me share it with you, at least.’ He blames his wife for the break down of their marriage, and when his adulterous life starts to fall apart, he blames his lover, Mary Fisher. She seems to be living the life of one of her own romantic heroines, in love with Bobbo and exercising power over him through her beauty. But as she takes on responsibilities and must deal with day-to-day practicalities, she loses her lustre.
The story has some elements of speculative fiction in questioning what effects extreme physical alteration might have on one's character and life. It also reminded me of Thackeray's Vanity Fair with its lack of a hero and picaresque elements. As such it satirises religion, the justice system, care of the elderly, even feminists. My favourite episode was Ruth's sojourn with The Wimmin commune. It was not for her, as 'She wished to live in the giddy mainstream of the world, not tucked away in this muddy corner of integrity.' There was a fairy tale feel to the book too, with Mary Fisher's High Tower, below which the sea crashed against the cliffs. But probably the story's greatest appeal is in its theme of revenge. Weldon herself has insisted that the story is about envy, but it is also about control, autonomy and transformation.
I really liked the book. Most women will associate with the desire to be more attractive and some may experience schadenfreude at Ruth's revenge. If there is one thing I would change, it would be the ending, but that's difficult to explain without spoilers.