The Water’s Lovely (Ruth Rendell)

By Ruth Rendell

First published: UK, Hutchinson, 2006; US, Crown


3 stars

Rendell - Water's LovelyThe Water’s Lovely is romantic comedy, Rendell-style.

Middle-class Londoners look for love, get married, and lose partners.

It’s like a Richard Curtis film, only with a drowned body in a bathtub, and a little rape.

Heather probably murdered her stepfather at the age of 13; her sister Ismay’s in love with the abusive Andrew Campbell-Sedge; and Andrew’s two-timing her with a gormless waif.

(“Everyone knew a baby was the best accessory you could have,” Eva thinks, channelling Edina Monsoon. “Look at Britney and Kate Moss.”)

Throw in a sociopathic Bonnie Langford – a cheerful, skipping, bubbly redhead, who tries to poison her employer – and one of Rendell’s appalling mothers, a controlling old hypochondriac.

It’s pleasant enough, but it seems unfocused.  After Guy’s drowned in Chapter 1, the only criminal elements for the next 180-odd pages are references to a “West End Werewolf” and Marion’s murderous attempts – played for laughs.

“What a waste, Marion was thinking, of what was probably a very expensive medicine, not to mention the work put in by all those poor poppy farmers in Afghanistan.”

The bad end happily, and the good unhappily.  Thanks to a tsunami, in one of Rendell’s battier deus ex machina endings.


Blurb

‘Weeks went by when Ismay never thought of it at all.  Then something would bring it back or it would return in a dream.  The dreams began in the same way.  She and her mother would be climbing the stairs, following Heather’s lead through the bedroom to what was on the other side, not a bathroom in the dream but a chamber floored and walled in marble.  In the middle of it was a glassy lake.  The white thing in the water floated towards her, its face submerged, and her mother said, absurdly, “Don’t look!”’

The dead man was Ismay’s stepfather, Guy.  Nine years on, she and her sister, Heather, still live in the same house in Clapham.  But it has been divided into two self-contained flats.  Their mother lives upstairs with her sister, Pamela.  And the bathroom, where Guy drowned, has disappeared.

Ismay works in public relations, and Heather in catering.  They get on well.  They always have.  They never discuss the changes to the house, still less what happened that August day…

But even lives as private as these, where secrets hang in the air like dust, intertwine with other worlds and other individuals.  And, with painful inevitability, the truth will emerge.


Reviews

Kirkus (1 June 2007):

The legacy of a violent death 12 years ago has even creepier resonances for a misfit London family.

Guy Rolland’s drowning in his bathtub left his womenfolk shattered. His wife Beatrix descended into madness. Her sister Pamela lost her fiancé, Guy’s friend Michael Fenster. His stepdaughter Ismay Sealand, a 15-year-old who’d encouraged his sexual advances, sank into guilt. And heaven only knows the effect on Ismay’s younger sister Heather, who everyone assumed without asking had killed Guy. Now love has found both Ismay, attached to rising barrister Andrew Campbell-Sedge, and Heather, courted by hospice nurse Edmund Litton. The results of these amours are even more devastating than the original trauma. Ismay’s unwisely taped reminiscences of her stepfather’s death entangle the sisters with a crew ranging from a retired police inspector to an ingratiatingly murderous companion to the West End Werewolf. The look back at long-buried secrets recalls Rendell’s Barbara Vine novels (The Minotaur, 2006, etc.), but here the retrospect is balanced by a deliciously inexorable sense of forward momentum. With so many malign schemers on call and so many frail, foolish victims for them to prey on, the sense of impending calamity is palpable. The only question is how and whom it will strike.

Despite some unlikely coincidences and a rushed and muted ending, one of the most deeply pleasurable thrillers from the genre’s leading practitioner.

 

New York Times (Janet Maslin, 16 July 2007):

“The Water’s Lovely,” an especially tricky and ingenious mystery from Ruth Rendell, begins in a two-apartment house in London. The place is shared by two pairs of sisters, all members of the same family. It has recently been renovated to eradicate an upstairs bathroom, but the change fools no one. All four women remember that bathroom as the scene of a 12-year-old crime.

The polite version of what happened is that it was an accident. Guy, the stepfather of Heather and Ismay Sealand, somehow drowned in the now-vanished bathtub. The girls’ mother, Beatrix, was so unhinged by the event that she is now daft — or “away with the fairies,” according to Pamela, Beatrix’s roommate and the girls’ aunt — and rattles off passages from the Book of Revelation.

As for Heather, who was 13 at the time, she never speaks about the incident, perhaps because she was found in a wet dress near the dead man. Ismay is two years older and haunted by the thought that her sister killed Guy and could kill again.

This nicely fecund setup is merely Ms. Rendell’s opening move in a deft, sneaky and complicated book, a novel rich with parallels and shadows. She lets the reader know exactly one thing: that whatever happened is not what Ismay imagines. Ismay must somehow be wrong, even if — especially if — the sisters’ entire view of the world is predicated on the idea of hiding Heather’s guilty secret.

Now add boyfriends. Heather begins dating Edmund Litton, a shy hospice nurse who lives with his mother. (That very description is good for a shiver.) And Ismay is involved with Andrew Campbell-Sedge, a privileged snob who bears a curiously strong resemblance to Guy. Andrew loathes Heather, speaks of her as a “that little gorgon,” and wants Heather and Edmund out of the house.

Meanwhile, in the suitably named Chudleigh Hill, Edmund’s awful mother, Irene, is feeling possessive about her boy. Not for nothing has Edmund taken Heather to see “The Manchurian Candidate” on their first date: It involves a fearsome matriarch, one even more malign than his own. But Irene is no slouch when it comes to being nasty, and neither is Ms. Rendell, who draws her characters with an insightful yet light touch.

Irene’s “large, aquiline, striking” features make her look like Maria Callas, Ms. Rendell writes. “She was aware of this herself and had been heard to say that she might have had the same operatic success if she had only been able to have her voice trained.” Lest there be any doubt about Irene’s attractiveness, Ms. Rendell gives her cranky hypochondriac tendencies. “When I’m asked how I am — and I’m usually unwell — I see no point in lying about it,” Irene says, with her version of good cheer.

Among Irene’s old-biddy friends is the wealthy, ancient Avice, whose two pet rabbits are the lights of her life. Along comes a ruthless young hustler named Marion, graced with a “little marmoset face” and a gold-digger’s ambition, who has made it her business to exploit the elderly. Marion, who was Irene’s idea of a perfect match for Edmund, now latches onto Avice, does some snooping and finds that the Small Mammals’ Protection League is a beneficiary in Avice’s will. Then she hints that there’s a fox in the garden and gets herself hired as rabbit keeper. “Dogs and cats have owners, Marion,” says the easily persuaded Avice, “but rabbits need staff.”

Back in her own humble apartment Marion has the perfect piece of equipment for this job: a bottle of morphine sulfate, which might go nicely with Avice’s tiramisù. But Marion also has a brother, Fowler, who shares her rampant criminal inclinations. Fowler is a thief and liar who once drank a can of silver polish. Nothing, not even poison, is safe around him.

Fowler suits Ms. Rendell’s purposes beautifully in a book that maintains a delicately moral balance. He is the burden that Marion deserves, as well as a way to link otherwise unrelated characters. One of Fowler’s foraging efforts as a Dumpster-diving derelict turns up an incriminating item that is a linchpin of this story.

The main mystery presented by “The Water’s Lovely” is how an author so relentlessly prolific, with dozens of novels to her credit and another set published under the pen name Barbara Vine, can do such buoyant, impeccable work. This stand-alone story, written apart from her Chief Inspector Wexford series, is one of her most gleefully energetic efforts. And its powers of description and characterization place it far beyond the limits of a genre novel. This book is less a conventional crime story than a sly social comedy in which not everybody dies of natural causes.

Ms. Rendell constantly changes points of view, not only to advance her story but also to refocus it unnervingly from different characters’ perspectives. The plot of “The Water’s Lovely” is driven not by dramatic revelations but by shifting, carefully manipulated doubts and suspicions. These are planted in the reader’s mind by even the most understated matters, like that ghostly memory of the bathroom or the watery quality of Sealand, Heather and Ismay’s last name. A fleeting mention of how Andrew is good at the tango or of how Heather’s reading “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” has her worried about what a confession could do to a love affair can be enough to set off alarms.

For the author of “The Rottweiler” “A Demon in My View,” “Make Death Love Me” and “Wolf to the Slaughter,” the title “The Water’s Lovely” is bizarrely sunny. Rest assured that Ms. Rendell has packed horror and irony into her water imagery. She begins “The Water’s Lovely” with a drowned corpse and ends it with a tsunami. Drier, more tacit violence lies in between.

New York Times (Janet Maslin, 16 July 2007):

“The Water’s Lovely,” an especially tricky and ingenious mystery from Ruth Rendell, begins in a two-apartment house in London. The place is shared by two pairs of sisters, all members of the same family. It has recently been renovated to eradicate an upstairs bathroom, but the change fools no one. All four women remember that bathroom as the scene of a 12-year-old crime.

The polite version of what happened is that it was an accident. Guy, the stepfather of Heather and Ismay Sealand, somehow drowned in the now-vanished bathtub. The girls’ mother, Beatrix, was so unhinged by the event that she is now daft — or “away with the fairies,” according to Pamela, Beatrix’s roommate and the girls’ aunt — and rattles off passages from the Book of Revelation.

As for Heather, who was 13 at the time, she never speaks about the incident, perhaps because she was found in a wet dress near the dead man. Ismay is two years older and haunted by the thought that her sister killed Guy and could kill again.

This nicely fecund setup is merely Ms. Rendell’s opening move in a deft, sneaky and complicated book, a novel rich with parallels and shadows. She lets the reader know exactly one thing: that whatever happened is not what Ismay imagines. Ismay must somehow be wrong, even if — especially if — the sisters’ entire view of the world is predicated on the idea of hiding Heather’s guilty secret.

Now add boyfriends. Heather begins dating Edmund Litton, a shy hospice nurse who lives with his mother. (That very description is good for a shiver.) And Ismay is involved with Andrew Campbell-Sedge, a privileged snob who bears a curiously strong resemblance to Guy. Andrew loathes Heather, speaks of her as a “that little gorgon,” and wants Heather and Edmund out of the house.

Meanwhile, in the suitably named Chudleigh Hill, Edmund’s awful mother, Irene, is feeling possessive about her boy. Not for nothing has Edmund taken Heather to see “The Manchurian Candidate” on their first date: It involves a fearsome matriarch, one even more malign than his own. But Irene is no slouch when it comes to being nasty, and neither is Ms. Rendell, who draws her characters with an insightful yet light touch.

Irene’s “large, aquiline, striking” features make her look like Maria Callas, Ms. Rendell writes. “She was aware of this herself and had been heard to say that she might have had the same operatic success if she had only been able to have her voice trained.” Lest there be any doubt about Irene’s attractiveness, Ms. Rendell gives her cranky hypochondriac tendencies. “When I’m asked how I am — and I’m usually unwell — I see no point in lying about it,” Irene says, with her version of good cheer.

Among Irene’s old-biddy friends is the wealthy, ancient Avice, whose two pet rabbits are the lights of her life. Along comes a ruthless young hustler named Marion, graced with a “little marmoset face” and a gold-digger’s ambition, who has made it her business to exploit the elderly. Marion, who was Irene’s idea of a perfect match for Edmund, now latches onto Avice, does some snooping and finds that the Small Mammals’ Protection League is a beneficiary in Avice’s will. Then she hints that there’s a fox in the garden and gets herself hired as rabbit keeper. “Dogs and cats have owners, Marion,” says the easily persuaded Avice, “but rabbits need staff.”

Back in her own humble apartment Marion has the perfect piece of equipment for this job: a bottle of morphine sulfate, which might go nicely with Avice’s tiramisù. But Marion also has a brother, Fowler, who shares her rampant criminal inclinations. Fowler is a thief and liar who once drank a can of silver polish. Nothing, not even poison, is safe around him.

Fowler suits Ms. Rendell’s purposes beautifully in a book that maintains a delicately moral balance. He is the burden that Marion deserves, as well as a way to link otherwise unrelated characters. One of Fowler’s foraging efforts as a Dumpster-diving derelict turns up an incriminating item that is a linchpin of this story.

The main mystery presented by “The Water’s Lovely” is how an author so relentlessly prolific, with dozens of novels to her credit and another set published under the pen name Barbara Vine, can do such buoyant, impeccable work. This stand-alone story, written apart from her Chief Inspector Wexford series, is one of her most gleefully energetic efforts. And its powers of description and characterization place it far beyond the limits of a genre novel. This book is less a conventional crime story than a sly social comedy in which not everybody dies of natural causes.

Ms. Rendell constantly changes points of view, not only to advance her story but also to refocus it unnervingly from different characters’ perspectives. The plot of “The Water’s Lovely” is driven not by dramatic revelations but by shifting, carefully manipulated doubts and suspicions. These are planted in the reader’s mind by even the most understated matters, like that ghostly memory of the bathroom or the watery quality of Sealand, Heather and Ismay’s last name. A fleeting mention of how Andrew is good at the tango or of how Heather’s reading “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” has her worried about what a confession could do to a love affair can be enough to set off alarms.

For the author of “The Rottweiler” “A Demon in My View,” “Make Death Love Me” and “Wolf to the Slaughter,” the title “The Water’s Lovely” is bizarrely sunny. Rest assured that Ms. Rendell has packed horror and irony into her water imagery. She begins “The Water’s Lovely” with a drowned corpse and ends it with a tsunami. Drier, more tacit violence lies in between.

 

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