Sunday, December 9, 2007
The Water's Lovely, by Ruth Rendell
Ruth Rendell creates main characters who are not always on the right side of "right", who for their own peculiar reasons (some easier to understand than others) sometimes behave rather badly. I have read other books of hers and for that reason I don't expect everything to turn out all right nor do I expect the protagonist (it's usually a woman) to make her way honorably at all times. Another characteristic of Rendell's novels is the mystery. We might guess but do not know crucial information. Thus some reviewers call her a master of "psychological thrillers" - but don't take that as a comparison to writers of mass market "thrillers" or even fine mysteries. These stories stand on their own plane.
Thus The Water's Lovely spins on a mystery that maybe isn't one, really. The main character, Ismay, a young woman living with her sister Heather, holds onto a secret that only her sister shares, the secret of how their stepfather drowned in the bathtub. The two, however, have never actually talked about this secret, so Ismay is not entirely sure she's got it right. She wonders: did Heather murder him? If so, she thinks she knows why. And she worries about what Heather might be driven to do in the future.
A rather large cast of characters enters into the story, each one somehow connected to Ismay or Heather, each one somehow affected, unknowingly, by this secret. Ismay and Heather's mother Bea has gone "mad" and given to pronouncements from the bible when she is not tucked close to her radio. Their aunt Pamela, who lives with Bea, pursues the opposite sex through online and newspaper ads, even venturing into "speed dating" and something called "romance walking". Ismay falls for Andrew, a self-centered lawyer whose privileged background seems to keep him from taking an interest in anything not he. Heather falls for Edmund, a kind and thoughtful nurse at the hospice where she works, a young man whose mother, Ingrid, is a first-class hypochondriac who also majors in guilt trips. Flitting about through all of these lives is Marion, a tiny 40-something single who jumps and skips and dances from place to place, while thinking about the many ways she can cheat others of their money and belongings.
For me, the novel is like a feast where all of the courses are perfect, unexpected, delicious. The flawed characters, and all of them are somehow flawed, are so finely drawn that at times I thought Rendell must have known people I know, or taken parts of my own character and used them in her characters' thoughts and deeds. So tasty, so nutritious, so excellent. It all finishes with some answers, but we are still left wondering.