- By Ruth Rendell
- First published: UK: Hutchinson, 1989; US: Mysterious Press, 1989
Three weeks after finishing Rendell’s 1989 novel, I am still bemused. It is a characteristic study of erotic obsession, but I am not convinced.
One lover is an unimaginative youth, not prone to fantasy, with “a strong sense of the present and of reality”; the other is mentally unstable, self-dramatising and self-loathing.
Why do Rendell’s young men fall in love with such weird and dangerous women? Surely, they would want someone kind and normal. As the Evening Standard asked: “What was a nice boy … doing with a girl like that?”
Philip Wardman, a 22-year-old interior decorator who loathes violence, falls in love with his sister’s bridesmaid, Senta, who resembles a garden statue of Flora.
“When I saw you this morning I knew at once that you were the one,” Senta tells him. “I knew you were the only one… I saw you across the room and I knew you were the one for me always.”
That is a paraphrase of Senta’s encounter with the Flying Dutchman in Wagner’s opera (end of Act II); she beholds the cursed sailor whom she longs to redeem from damnation (a typically Wagnerian motif).
Both heroines are obsessive dreamers, lost in a world of fantasy – but Rendell’s Senta brings no redemption through love. Rendell reverses the Wagnerian gender roles; here it is the woman who is pale and vampiric, looking for fulfilment in love.
She claims to recognise Philip as her “soulmate”, but she ensnares him in a web of murder and passion. Senta wants Philip to murder someone (anyone) to prove his love for her, as she will for him: “the thing that is outside law and beyond reason”. (The situation recalls Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.)
Philip, having more nous than most Rendell characters, refuses. He prefers to believe that Senta is merely indulging in erotic fantasy – a reversal of Rendell’s previous psychological novel, Talking to Strange Men, where fantasy games (schoolboy spying) are mistaken for reality.
Rendell skilfully combines suburban social comedy (Philip’s fluffy, ineffectual mother) with raw eroticism, but the Grand Guignol finale doesn’t quite work.
Adapted by Claude Chabrol in 2004:
The Observer (Christopher Wordsworth, 16th April 1989): After the death of his feckless father, Philip feels doubly protective when his pretty, bird-brained mother is badly let down by an interested businessman and his younger sister is clearly doing (or taking?) something dangerous. A thoroughly nice example of homo suburbiensis, nothing else matters to him after his first epiphanic meeting with the mysterious, dreaming Senta, who lives like a troglodyte in a squalid basement and declares that their love was written in the stars. There is a horrid fascination in the way the author mines the danger zone and adds her special shades of hell to the twisted landscape of obsession.
Evening Standard (Sophia Sackville-West, 27th April 1989): The good, the bad and the murderous
Says Ruth Rendell: “We’re all capable of murder we all sometimes want to attack people; strike them, hurt them.” After 25 years of writing crime fiction, her judgment is implicit in Phillip Wardman’s switch from suburban values to cognisance of the mad, the bad, the murderous.
Phillip has a phobic dislike of prurient media violence. This is the salient characteristic of a likeable 24-year-old who has resignedly assumed responsibility for his widowed mother’s life. That is, until he meets Senta, a bridesmaid at his sister’s wedding.
Senta has silver hair, a whiter-than-milk skin, limpid eyes tinted with green, and lust. Transported by orgiastic sex in a Kilburn basement, Phillip indulges Senta’s hippy nonsense about vengeful gods and her self-glamorising fantasies. When Senta suggests that they commit a murder to prove their love, Phillip reluctantly agrees to a “game” – one from which he learns his own capacity for violence.
Against an increasingly hallucinatory background of torrential storms and tramps who must be “placated by gifts”, Rendell introduces Greek melodrama to London streets.
Her tactile descriptions of lower middle class living are so brilliantly exact as to contrast awkwardly with the fanciful evocations of Senta and her lair. At the end of the novel, one has to ask: what was a nice boy like Phillip doing with a girl like that?
Evening Herald (Dublin) (David Robbins, 28th April 1989): Crime fiction is more usually illuminated by the flashing neon of Los Angeles than the streetlamps of London’s bucolic suburbs, but Ruth Rendell’s The Bridesmaid manages to bring a nice sense of danger to the domestic scene.
Devoted to his dotty mother, Philip closes out those unhelpful aspects of modernity like murder and drugs. He has that strangely English horror of “unpleasantness”.
When he encounters Senta, a bridesmaid at his sister’s wedding, he is fascinated by her. He is ineluctably drawn into her underworld of crime and squalor. He feels himself forced to do things from which the old Philip would have recoiled.
Ruth Rendell is the Penelope Lively of thrillers: she uses the stiletto rather than the blunderbuss – and to much greater effect.
The Guardian (Matthew Coady, 12th May 1989): The commonplace and the bizarre conjoin in Ruth Rendell’s The Bridesmaid in which she traces a young man’s fixated path to maturity. He refurbishes suburban homes, lives with mother and sister, becomes obsessed with a garden nymph statue – symbol of beauty in a semi-detached world – and then dangerously infatuated with its living lookalike. This relationship is emotional, erotic and vampiric with him as its victim.
On one level here is a lower middle class family locked into ordinary concerns over sliced ham sausage and canned spaghetti rings; on the other a foul basement flat, smacking of the charnel house, provides the setting for a weird relationship with an hysteric, fantasist girl. Can the hapless Philip avoid a calamitous folie à deux?
That is only one of the questions Ms Rendell prompts as she moves towards a grand guignol finale in a story in which strands of human feeling manage to surmount the horror. The mundane domestic interior is faultlessly drawn. Belief in the suffocating circumstances of the perverse affair is sustained – just – by the seductive readability of the telling.
Aberdeen Evening Express (Vivienne Nicoll, 3rd June 1989): Obsessive love
A young man’s fascination with his sister’s bridesmaid pulls him reluctantly into a bizarre fantasy world and an obsessive love.
However the fantasy becomes reality when he learns his pale beauty has killed a stranger to prove the depth of her desire.
Master storyteller Rendell weaves an expert tale of an ordinary family whose lives are touched by madness and in the process adds to her growing collection of eminently readable mysteries.
Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Helen Barnes, 22nd June 1989): With 25 years of crime writing experience behind her, Ruth Rendell has had no difficulty in coming up with an enthralling plot guaranteed to grip the reader.
The bridesmaid of the title is Senta Pelham, a pale girl with silver hair and almost colourless eyes, who grabs the attention of Philip because of her striking resemblance to a statue in his garden.
But when Philip enters the strange and cloistered world of Senta’s dusty underground flat he is soon wrapped up in an intense relationship which threatens to destroy him.
He almost loses touch completely with his own world of normality and the problems facing his own family. His sister Cheryl keeps borrowing money and refuses to say why she needs it, while his widowed mother is suffering silently from the rejection of a man friend.
Philip comes to believe that Senta is living in a world of fantasy and he has doubts about almost everything she tells him All he does know is that he has entered into a relationship which requires a murder to prove it is real.
With a plot of the twists and turns expected from a good crime novel this will keep you guessing until the last page.
Evening Standard (Joan Smith, 14th December 1989): Two books have lodged themselves in my head this year: The Bridesmaid by Ruth Rendell and Christopher Hope’s My Chocolate Redeemer. The beauty of Rendell’s novel lies in the way horror insinuates itself into the life of an ordinary young man from north-west London.