It took me mere days to finish Alison Lurie’s book, while it took me months to finish this one!
This book was on my list of 10 for 2017, picked from my own shelves and my long TBR, so I really, really wanted to finish it, but otherwise I’m not sure I would have. I know that Barbara Vine’s books are slow, so I gritted my teeth, waiting for the reward at the end, but none came. Or I missed it, which is entirely possible.
This book is a story within a story, and I must say that I found the inside story, a supposed novel taking place from 1929 to 1947 (which makes for the bulk of the volume) less interesting (if more historically researched) than the other one which is contemporary and frames the other plot like two bookends.
Both stories have parallels and explore the themes of homosexuality and of children born out of wedlock. Both events were deeply shameful in the past and led to people hiding their true nature for years and years, basically their whole lives. In both stories a young single woman gets pregnant and lives together with her homosexual brother. Ruth Rendell shows how society stigmatises gays and single mothers and how it has grown a bit more tolerant but not much more throughout the century. Well, it’s not really big news, or is it? There is a very strange discussion in the book about which fate is worse, and I couldn’t make sense of this strange tug-of-war.
It didn’t help that the main characters of the 1930s plot are deeply unsympathetic. The single mother, especially, is so self-centered that it was hard to feel sorry for her. I bet this is what Ruth Rendell had in mind, especially as the meek 15-year-old who finds herself pregnant and ostracized by her very rigid family turns into a very rigid adult who condemns her gay brother and rejects her own daughter who seems more open and modern. Of course, making her so judgmental and so rigid made her gay brother’s life even more of a burden, but it makes for a dreary read.
It was quite interesting to see the long-standing effects of guilt and shame and how it shapes the relations of people around the main characters. It was also interesting to see a crime that goes unpunished for years only to find a solution by chance.
I would have been interested to know more about Grace, the contemporary PhD candidate who finds herself pregnant while writing her thesis about Victorian single mothers. The dialogues between this young woman, her gay brother and his lover, supposedly set right now, were really stiff and formal, but still the conflict of emotions was quite real. I would also have been interested to learn how a young woman could continue her PhD studies despite being pregnant, given that the glass ceiling in academia is only too real. Alas, that’s not at all what Ruth Rendell had in mind.
It’s probably not one of her best, and I think I’ll stick to Inspector Wexford’s investigations now.