By Tom De Haven
Updated November 12, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Unlike movies (usually starring Sharon Stone or Glenn Close), novels almost never feature women who are bad-to-the-bone. But gender equality ought to mean the opportunity for female characters to be equally sinister as well as equally good—shouldn’t it? Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale, Wilderness Tips) obviously thinks so, and in The Robber Bride (Doubleday, $24) she has created a villainess as predatory as Attila the Hun.

Everything about Zenia is fraudulent, including her name, her breasts (silicone implants), and her biography. She keeps making up new pasts as she needs them, depending upon what swindle she’s trying to pull: She’s a Russian émigré forced into prostitution as a child in Paris; she’s the daughter of a Gypsy stoned to death by Romanian peasants; she’s a Jew who was smuggled out of Nazi Germany as an infant.

But no matter how preposterous the stories she tells about her life, or how phony her serial plights (she’s flat broke, she’s a battered woman, she’s dying of cancer, she’s on the run from the Irish Republican Army), Zenia nevertheless receives sympathy and shelter from three former university friends—Tony, Charis, and Roz—each of whom she grossly betrays. And each of whose lovers she beguiles, seduces, steals, then casually discards.

Because Zenia’s motives are so inexplicable, and her capacity for evil—for emotional pillage—is so boundless, she assumes almost supernatural proportions in the minds of her victims. Which is why they feel such relief when she’s reportedly blown to bits by a terrorist bomb in Lebanon.

And also why they’re not surprised when, five years later, she reappears in Toronto more beautiful and charismatic than ever. Was her ”death” just another con job, as one would think, or has Zenia truly come back from the dead? Tony (she’s a military historian), Charis (a New Age flake), and Roz (a sharp-tongued businesswoman) aren’t especially curious to find out; they’re far more concerned with keeping their archenemy at bay. Or failing that, destroying her.

Atwood has great fun fretting her plot with Victorian melodrama. Characters conspire together, brood alone, secretly tail one another, set traps. The anti-Zenia league, in fact, resembles Bram Stoker’s vampire hunters, and Zenia herself, like the original Dracula, appears in only a fraction of the novel’s scenes—though her malevolent spirit poisons them all.

It’s Atwood’s relish for her own material, however, that finally weakens the book, which—at the risk of sounding like a whiny college sophomore—is too long. And too slow. Structured so that each episode in present time is followed by an extended flashback to the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s, each of which contains still another flashback, to the troubled childhood of either Roz, Charis, or Tony, The Robber Bride is glacially paced. And when the end does come, after almost 500 pages, it’s shockingly abrupt, virtually a throwaway. Zenia, a marvelous monster, deserves a much better send-off than she gets. Though it’s always possible—given her genius for surprise—that she’s not gone for good. B