Barbara Vine, The Birthday Present (2008)

Very simply put, it’s about a kinky fantasy that goes horribly wrong in one hour… and ruins lives for years and years afterward.

Ambitious, brilliant but amoral young Tory politician has sex with married housewife (not his, obviously). To spice it up, he hires two guys to fake a kidnapping (with her consent) so that his gagged and cuffed blond mistress and he will enjoy a hot weekend. But the guys drive recklessly, and in the ensuing car accident, one guy and the mistress die, the other guy goes into a long-term coma. The embarrassed MP doesn’t want to have his career destroyed by the sex scandal, so he doesn’t come forward to the police. But he will wonder for now on who knows his secret and can jeopardize his whole life.

Like another Barbara Vine’s long-term (I didn’t say long-winded, although it really tries your patience at times) thriller, A Fatal Inversion, this is about the long term consequences of a secret. (Not about guilt, because the MP feels no remorse, but about plain fear). Here the secret is slightly ridiculous, so it doesn’t play to the advantage of the main character.

This thriller has a very large cast of characters, but none of them are very likeable, except perhaps the narrator, MP’s brother in law, who remains at a prudent, silently disapproving distance from all this sleaze. Another key character is the mistress’ best girlfriend, a bitter, lonely, charmless spinster used for alibi and foil, who progressively gets obsessed by the MP’s secret.

Mr. Smithereens and I had different interpretations (we’re both fans and try to identify themes we believe are hidden by Rendell in each book). To Mr. Smithereens, she focused on false assumptions that people have on one another, especially the jaded view that people never do anything out of kindness: the MP expects people to betray him, the brother-in-law suspects the MP’s wife to blackmail him into marriage, etc. To me, it was more about egoism and unbalanced relationships (I was skimming through a lot of psychology magazines at the same time, so perhaps it influenced me). For me, it’s about 2 excessively egocentric people, unable to trust others and to honestly empathize with others, and who end up sucking out the energy of those around them who have a weaker ego, like the brother-in-law and the alibi girlfriend, who are just fascinated, even if they don’t approve of them.

I think I missed out on all the political subtext. Rendell is a Labor peer, so when she paints the Tory government of the early 1990s, you can’t help but feel that she settles some scores. But I’m not into the details of British political scene, so I couldn’t tell for sure.

Oddly, the result may feel quite dull and slow, because the story is told in retrospect (we know from the start that the MP didn’t make a brilliant career), so there are few surprises. It is a bit of a disappointment, but I remain a loyal fan and I wait for the next Rendell / Vine’ s production.

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4 thoughts on “Barbara Vine, The Birthday Present (2008)

  1. I’ve been in the mood for a Rendell/Vine novel, but this one just hasn’t appealed to me. I loved A Fatal Inversion, though it is indeed on the longish side, but the story worked and I’m not sure this one would. I’m also not very knowledgeable about British politics, so I wonder if I would miss some of the subtext. It’s cool you and Mr Smithereens both read the book and discuss it!

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