When Ruth's unfaithful and unappreciative husband Bobbo calls her a she-devil, she decides to appropriate that identity with a vengeance and take a different spot in the power relations of the world. She wants revenge, power, money, and "to be loved and not love in return"(49). Specifically, Ruth wants to bring about the downfall of her husband's lover, Mary Fisher, a pretty, blonde romance novelist who lives in a tower by the sea and lacks for neither love nor money nor power.

Ruth commences her elaborate revenge by burning down her own home and dumping her surly children with Mary and Bobbo. She continues on a literally shape-shifting quest in which she changes identities; gains skill, power, and money; and explores and critiques key sites of power and powerlessness in contemporary society, including the church, the law, the geriatric institution, the family home, and (above all) the bedroom.

By the end of the novel, Ruth achieves all four of her goals in abundance. Her success, however, raises complex ethical questions, not only because she uses the same strategies of manipulation and cruelty of which she was a victim, but also because of the painful physical reconstruction of her body that is the tool of her victory.


Ruth's strategies for achieving power and revenge are deliciously intricate, hilarious, but increasingly disturbing. Her use of other people, especially the socially disenfranchised, arguably always benefits them in some way, and no one seems clearly hurt except for Bobbo and Mary. For a time, then, the novel offers the satisfactions of melodrama, in which the downtrodden rise up and are vindicated.

Ruth's methods eventually push the novel beyond melodrama, however, to a particularly shocking and ethically challenging black comedy, always on the edge of tragedy. Her treatment of Bobbo and Mary, for example, moves past "justice" to cruelty as they become increasingly pathetic and enfeebled.

More provocatively, given that power in this novel is always "power over," Ruth's willingness to mortify and mutilate her own body in order to achieve power raises serious questions about the value of the power she achieves, and who she oppresses most in her success. This is especially true of the last half of the novel, in which the knife beneath the comedy becomes a literal surgical knife.

While Ruth becomes successful in her natural body, that of an "unpretty" woman--over six feet tall, dark, fleshy, and powerful-looking--she ultimately uses her wealth to change herself into the exact likeness of her enemy, Mary Fisher. This section of the novel offers a fascinating and complex critique of cosmetic surgery, going far beyond the standard plot of the plastic surgeon as Pygmalion.

Ruth's surgeons first fall in love with her ambitious and expensive project, and then in love with Ruth, their product. As she continues to pursue more and more painful, life-threatening, and normalizing procedures beyond their preferences, however, they ultimately see her as a threat to their art.

This would be a wonderful novel to teach along with stories like Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Birthmark or with Geek Love, Katherine Dunn's novel about the appropriation of genetic defect (see this database). It would also be an interesting counterpart to cultural histories of aesthetic surgery such as Sander Gilman's Making the Body Beautiful (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999) and Kathy Davis's Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery (New York: Routledge, 1995).



Place Published

New York



Page Count