29 June 2009

Book Review: The Water's Lovely by Ruth Rendell

The Water’s Lovely Thirteen years ago Ismay Sealand’s stepfather drowned in the bath. The rest of the family still lives in the same house, now divided into two flats. Ismay’s schizophrenic mother Beatrice upstairs with her desperate and dateless sister Pamela, and Ismay and her sister Heather downstairs. The arrangement works until Ismay meets Andrew and Heather meets Edmund. The little flat is getting crowded, and Andrew for one doesn’t intend to put up with it. The best solution Ismay can see is for Heather and Edmund to find a place of their own - but how good a plan is it to let him settle down with a probable murderess? Unable to decide what to do, or to come up with another explanation for Guy’s death, Ismay seeks a temporary answer which soon goes awry.

Heather is in a dilemma of her own - whether to tell Ismay that her beloved Andrew has been out on the town with socialite Eva Simber. She also has to put up with the hostility of Edmund’s mother Irene and her friend Marion. A professional predator, Marion collects lonely old people of independent means and never misses an opportunity to make a profit - legal or not. Her passion for nosing out secrets threatens to make Ismay’s life more uncomfortable; and it’s already bad enough, because Ismay has come to wonder if Heather might have killed more than once.

It’s a sign of how much I enjoyed this book that it wasn’t until after I’d finished it that I began to think, Hold on a minute... If I hadn’t been so absorbed in the story, a number of things would have seemed like far too much of a coincidence to be plausible. At the time, though, I happily accepted the events put before me. The only thing I questioned was the need for quite so many odious characters, but I suppose you can’t have a psychological crime novel without them. And having people like Irene and Marion around made a good contrast to Ismay. Keenly anticipating the downfall of the antagonists meant, by extension, hoping that the protagonists came out on top, and gave me a sympathy for Ismay I may not otherwise have had.

You see, Ismay was an example of one of my pet fictional peeves: dumb women. She went to pieces when Andrew left and was willing to do anything to get him back, even though he was a cheat and an insufferable snob to boot, a man who wanted her to estrange herself from her family because they didn’t meet his standards. Where, I wondered, were Ismay’s standards? Her aunt wasn’t much better, ignoring common sense to pursue a relationship with a man who might as well have had "Very Bad News" stamped on his forehead. And Eva never rose above the stereotype of the impossibly airheaded blonde socialite, one who’d make Paris Hilton look like a rocket scientist. I’m not entirely sure whether the fault lies with the author, for creating characters lacking in backbone, or with me for failing to understand the desperation to which some people can be driven in the dating game, and for getting frustrated with characters who don’t match my own level of cold-bloodedness. (But surely being in love, or wanting to be, needn’t mean tossing dignity out the window and thirty IQ points after it?) I suspect that someone with more sympathy for women in Ismay’s or Pam’s situation would like the book more than I did. But I would challenge anyone to like the ending. Why did she have to do that?

Rating: B-

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776