Barbara Vine

"The Birthday Present"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky MAR 29, 2009)

Writing as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell's The Birthday Present is an extended flashback in which two narrators look back at a sordid incident and its tragic aftermath. Ivor Tesham, a handsome and ambitious graduate of Eton and Oxford, becomes a Tory MP at thirty-one and seems destined for political stardom. However, his self-centeredness and desire for sexual excitement propel him to take foolish risks, and when things go terribly wrong, he becomes an emotional wreck. Ivor's cautionary tale is narrated by Rob, an accountant and Ivor's staid brother-in-law, and Jane Atherton, the dowdy and resentful best friend of Ivor's married mistress, a beautiful twenty-seven year old named Hebe Furnal who shares her lover's kinky tastes.

Rob and his wife, Iris, Ivor's sister, serve as a mini-Greek chorus. Although they bear some blame for enabling Ivor to carry out an imprudent scheme, no one could have foreseen how fate would turn a sick charade into a catastrophe. Instead of presenting the facts in a linear manner, Rendell allows Rob and Jane to report their version of events with their biases intact, forcing us to figure out who did what to whom and why. Rendell uses black humor and complex plot machinations to shine a spotlight on human frailties, with an emphasis on obsession, greed, and egotism. Ivor jeopardizes his career and reputation for the sake of a tawdry adventure; Hebe puts her marriage and her son's welfare at risk to carry on a clandestine liaison with an attractive and wealthy man. Jane Atherton is a homely and dejected woman, one of a "faceless tribe" who "go to bed alone and get up alone." She is a perpetual victim whose low-paying job, manipulative and nagging mother, and solitary existence fill her with bitterness and self-pity.

The Birthday Present is laced with surprises and last-minute plot twists. Unlike other works by this author that are almost painfully misanthropic, this book encourages us to understand and feel compassion for the characters, most of whom want a better life for themselves and someone with whom to share it. It is too bad, she implies, that so many of us have a penchant for self-destruction. It is almost as if we are tempted to stand on a cliff just to see how close we can come to the edge without falling off. Even if we play by the rules and try to do the right thing, however, life can be horribly unfair. The Birthday Present is an original, edgy, and deliciously ironic mystery in which Rendell tempers her usual cynicism with a welcome dose of empathy.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 7 reviews
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"No Night is Too Long"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark FEB 7, 1998)

As the story opens, Tim Cornish has been receiving typed notes on yellow legal paper from an anonymous American.  The notes tell pieces of the story from which Daniel Defoe based the novel Robinson Crusoe.  At this point all we know is that Tim feels targeted and fearful which is wholly different than guilt.  The story continues on in the first person narrative as Tim explains his guilt, his fear and how his relations came to be sexually obsessed with an older man named Ivan and a married woman named Isabel. 

Even now as I thumb through the book to write this summary, I am sucked in to reading page after page. Until I realize that I've just reread this book all over again. And yet again, I find it's a true shocker.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 18 reviews

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About the Author:

Barbara VineBarbara Vine is a pseudonym for Ruth Rendell.

A Dark-Adapted Eye won an Edgar Award, the highest honor of the Mystery Writers of America. A Fatal Inversion won the English equivalent, the Crime Writers' Gold Dagger Award. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014