November 22, 1993 12:00 PM

by Margaret Atwood

Atwood’s eighth novel, a dark, dark comedy of sexual manners, swirls around a villainess drawn with the subtlety of a cartoonist’s palette. This particular she devil, Zenia, comes with a hundred histories: Her mother was stoned to death in Romania; no, her mother was forced into prostitution in Paris; no, she was a persecuted Jew in Hitler’s Berlin…. And so she wins her female victims’ sympathies as she circles their husbands and lovers. “In the war of the sexes,” writes Atwood, “Zenia was a double agent. Or not even that, because Zenia wasn’t working for one side or the other. She was on no side but her own.”

Tony, Roz and Charis have nothing in common but the most important thing: In their youth, all lost their men to Zenia. And so they are now fast friends, enjoying their monthly lunch date at the aptly named Toxique when Zenia walks in, not only returned from the dead, but with silicone-enhanced breasts.

The three women do not exactly get revenge, but they do come to terms with previous torture as they gather forces to fend off their nemesis.

Standing very much apart from the action, Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye) saves her most delicate strokes for her heroines: Charis, aka Karen, who favors new-age philosophies; Roz, a wealthy businesswoman; and birdlike Tony, a professor specializing in war. When Tony can’t sleep, she settles down at her basement sand-table map of Europe and replays great battles with troops composed of kidney beans and grains of rice. In the class-room, she mesmerizes students with such wacky insights as the extent to which wartime casualties can be traced to military clothing designers. For amusement, she falls back on the backward language she created in childhood, renaming the scary things, including her husband, West (formerly Stew).

With The Robber Bride, Atwood has written a book that doesn’t bear too much analysis. Take it for the delicious romp that it is, a horrifying, breathtaking, stinging fable that, like its unforgettable temptress, causes worlds of trouble “just for the fun of it.” (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $23.50)

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