The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983)

by Fay Weldon

In her nonfiction book Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, Weldon spoke about novel writing in a way that would seem to make her a good candidate for this upbeat serious fiction list: 

"The writers . . . who get the best and most lasting response from readers are the writers who offer a happy ending through moral development. By a happy ending I do not mean mere fortunate events — a marriage, or a last-minute rescue from death — but some kind of spiritual reassessment or moral reconciliation. . . . Readers need and seek for moral guidance. . . . They need an example, in the light of which they can examine themselves, understand themselves."

Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil provides both sexes with a lot to examine, but whether it's uplifting is debatable — unless you consider a chronicle of revenge uplifting. There's no denying, though, that Weldon can be wickedly funny.

The she-devil, Ruth, begins the tale as a downtrodden homemaker. Her puffed-up accountant husband, Bobbo, humiliates her in front of their children and doesn't even try to conceal his affair with a romance writer who lives 67 miles away in a cliff-top tower by the sea. Indeed, he shares the details with Ruth. ("Be patient. I don't intend to leave you. It's just that I'm in love with her and must act accordingly.") Mary Fisher, the writer, is the opposite of Ruth: petite (Ruth is 6' 2"), glamorous (even Ruth's mother owned that she was "an ugly duckling"), able to get what she wants.

In one moment of exasperation with his wife's inability to put on a happy front before his parents, Bobbo pronounces Ruth a "she-devil." The insult turns out to empower Ruth to become a "she-devil" — a creature without guilt or shame. She plans to enact revenge on Bobbo and his mistress, carrying out a series of successful schemes to burn down the house Bobbo still owns, saddle Mary Fisher with Ruth's loutish children and Mary's own dotty mother, embezzle Bobbo's clients, and send him to prison for the crime. In her final act of revenge, Ruth goes under a surgeon's knife to have herself physically transformed into a Mary Fisher look-alike — but by then Bobbo is too out of his wits to realize who she is.

All of this has to be taken as a parable. If you like Fay Weldon's perverse humor and outrageous plots, this book will provide you with much amusement. If you're a woman with a grievance against a man or men, it might be cathartic. But if you're disturbed by a woman's abandoning her children, lying, scheming, seducing married men and priests, using everyone else for her own purposes, this novel may be too raw.


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