book: A Sight for Sore Eyes (1998) by Ruth Rendell

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Brought up in an affectionless, distanced family, young Teddy has become an aesthete, a craftsman, an emotional cripple and a sociopath. Having as a child seen her mother murdered, Francine has had her life since then dominated by her controlling, obsessional, quack psychotherapist stepmother, Julia. Harriet still lives in a past where she was a rock socialite celebrated for her pre-Raphaelite-style beauty, subject of an iconic painting; now, married to a far older man who bores her rigid, she whiles away the time by seducing plumbers and electricians. One day she lures Teddy to the house on the pretext that she needs new shelving. By now Teddy has become obsessed with the pure-seeming Francine, who’s responsive to his approaches because she’s never had a boyfriend before and perhaps also because Julia disapproves of the liaison . . .

That’s the setup, and by all counts it should have led to another Ruth Rendell classic.

And yet somehow it . . . didn’t, or at least not for me.

One expects a certain amount of artificiality in Rendell’s psychological novels, whether written under her own name or as by Barbara Vine. This isn’t an adverse criticism. It’s as if the novels are following the protocols of stage drama: Everything’s just a little divorced from real life, but you expect and accept this because, after all, the characters are separated from the herd by being up there on the stage, the lights are preternaturally bright, the diction is projected rather than merely spoken. None of that detracts from the validity of the play as an observation of human nature, and the same principle applies to Rendell’s fiction.

So I didn’t come into A Sight for Sore Eyes anticipating realism, but I did assume it’d have a bit more in common with the real world than I found. The problem for me was, I think, that, Francine excepted, I couldn’t believe in any of the principal characters. Julia is the kind of caricature you expect in a second-tier villain in a Batman movie. I’ve met people like Harriet, but here the obnoxious characteristics are taken to absurd extremes and any redeeming ones are simply eliminated — to the point of, once again, caricature. I could just about believe in Teddy, although his social awkwardness was so much larger-than-life as to be beyond credible. Harriet’s husband is so unobservant that he doesn’t notice a newly constructed piece of wall inside his own home. Francine’s dad is just a cypher, his character never emerging much more than that of a commuter you see daily but don’t speak to on the train.

So I found it a bit hard to get my pulse racing as these otherworldly characters danced their dance through series of interrelated actions that weren’t themselves especially believable. I could admire the book’s artifice while at the same time not becoming much involved in it.

There’s also the matter of the writing. Rendell was a very good prose-smith, albeit not a colorful one: she achieved her effects through a sort of conscious, elegant drabness that contrasted nicely with the often melodramatic events she was depicting. The text of A Sight for Sore Eyes, however, is in desperate need of some basic copyediting. Aside from the jumbled matter of the room keys in Julia’s house (we’re told on page 257 there are only two of them, then on page 259 that there’s just the one, while on page 270 it emerges that there are, apparently, lots), I kept tripping over pieces of rank bad writing. Here’s just a single example:

. . . in a side street off the back of Kensington Church Street he found areas demarcated on the roadway with white lines. All but one of these was occupied and it was just large enough to take the Edsel.

The meaning’s obvious, but that second sentence is excruciating. I (obviously) didn’t keep a count of similar examples, but there must have been dozens, and they had the cumulative effect of, once more, making it difficult for me to immerse myself in Rendell’s tale.

So, something of a disappointment for me here from a favorite author. But I have a bunch of other Rendells/Vines still on the shelf, so fingers crossed I strike luckier next time.

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2 thoughts on “book: A Sight for Sore Eyes (1998) by Ruth Rendell

    • Not my favorite Rendell, as you’ll have guessed. On the other hand, it has a pretty high average Goodreads rating, which quite a few five-stars among them. So maybe it’s just me.

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