This novel is mostly well done and has some great quips. It wasn't as good as The Handmaiden's Tale, but better than Cat's Eye and The Blind Assassin.
Overall there are some plot weaknesses..really all three of them are taken in by Zenia despite the knowledge of what happened to the others? Really they were not friends in college, but end up friends simply in the fight against Zenia? Really? And I wasn't absolutely sure that Zenia was ever in fact real. Could it be simply that each of the three have their own troubles independently and don't ever actually interact and aren't actually fighting against the same malevolent character, but instead are each having individual lives and there is some underlayering where they connect (possibly in a dream?). I know the text does not completely support this reading, but I'm not convinced that I couldn't argue that everything that happens in Toxicity is really happening inside one of their heads (and not actually in person).
That ridiculous suggestion aside, the book is very well constructed and carries quite a few themes throughout (despite the obvious Jezebel references that I won't bother with here). I have quotes/comments below:
"History is a construct, she tells her students. Any point of entry is possible and all choices are arbitrary." Absolutely true. Not only history (hindsight analysis), but any story (including fiction) is fluid. Tony has this same thought at the end after they scatter Zenia's ashes in the water and she is picking her flower outside of Charis' house.
Zenia (and this goes back to my thinking that she is actually three separate people; simply the named, but nameless villain in all three of their lives) appears to each of the three (and accordingly their three men) as the object that is both the most likely to garner their sympathy and reminiscent of their neglectful/abusive/criminal parent. Yes, in part this is Zenia acting the part that is most appropriate; after all she is a chameleon and a con artist of the finest order, but it is also a reflection of what each wants. "As with any magician, you saw what she wanted you to see; or else you saw what you yourself wanted to see."
"whatever it was that she needed to be taught, it wasn't on the curriculum there. Or maybe she wasn't ready for it. Charis believes that when you are ready to learn a thing the right teacher will appear, or rather will be sent to you." A flip on the theme I've discovered recently in both Evolution of Bruno Littlemore and Angle of Repose about how you can't force someone to learn if they don't want to learn something...here it is you can't find a way to learn something until you are ready. Certainly Charis' new ageism is not my cup of tea, but this is worth some mulling.
"Does Roz secretly enjoy all this? She didn't at first. The very first time it happened she felt scooped out, disjointed, scorned and betrayed, crushed by bulldozers. She felt worthless, useless, sexless. She thought she would die. But she's developed a knack, and therefore a taste. It's the same as a business negotiation or a poker game. She's always been a whiz at poker. You have to know when to up the stakes, when to call a bluff, when to fold. So she does enjoy it, some. It's hard not to enjoy something you're good at." A different take on the (what is the female version of cuckolded) woman. Certainly there are lots of historical (and not so historical) instances of women staying with men who constantly cheat. There are lots of explanations and lots of ways to interpret the behavior. I don't have any personal experience on this one, but I liked the idea that Roz was not only good at the game (despite being what one could call a victim in it), but was actively enjoying the process of watching and manipulating her cheating husband.
"It must be something very simple and obvious. She tells them they're unique, then reveals to them that they're not." Isn't that the way to heartbreak for us all? We (each of us) want to impress, we want to be praised and when a once cherished or loved someone points out that we are not in fact unique then we are dashed.
"Food should be shared. Solitary eating can be like solitary drinking--a way of dulling the edge, of filling in the blanks." I just loved this as a way to explain all those poor sops who eat when they are depressed.
"Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it's all a male fantasy: that you're strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it." Interesting statement for a cynical feminist like Atwood. Certainly Zenia may complain that she is just an object for men's use, but she is quite able to be a "man eater" as Atwood describes. This is, of course, the original question. In such a (even now in 2012) male-centric and male-dominated world, how do women take power; well, by manipulating men either sexually or simply by evoking their male fantasies (put us on a pedestal and keep us chaste). Isn't every woman slightly Jezebel-esque?
I'm not sure about the orphan theme. Both Tony and Charis are orphans by college. Roz is decidedly not an orphan..who knows about Zenia.
I'm also not sure why Zenia would continue to pick on these three (again back to the idea that she is not one person, but some conglomerate). Does Zenia have better things to do? She disappears for 10 years at a time (in the 60s she trashes Tony, 1970 she picks on Charis and then 1983 to attack Roz), certainly she is off wreaking havoc on other people in other parts of the world. Why would she continue to come back and get these three? Again, unless she is not...she is simply a demon (or representation) of all evil; there are three protagonists here each of whom have a nemesis who is different from the others.
Overall it was a thought provoking (if occasionally stereotypic) novel that managed a fairly compelling and interesting plot line.