Monday, July 26, 2010

Skip the book, take in the market instead!

Ruth Rendell has always been one of my favorite authors. I'd wait anxiously for the newest release from her, whether it was from the Inspector Wexford series, or one of her "one off" novels. I recently read The Monster in the Box, which she has said will be the last Wexford novel. I love the characters in the Wexford books, and I've enjoyed keeping up with their lives throughout the 22 novels featuring the characters. However, I did feel that the last few Wexford novels were just not up to the standards of the earlier books. Rendell did keep the events current, dealing with such topics as infertility, modern day slavery and so on, but I felt the later novels were stretching the bounds of credulity a bit too much to be enjoyable.

I was therefore pleased to find out that she'd released a new non-series book, Portobello. I waited and waited and waited for the book to become available in the U.S. She is such a popular writer, I reasoned, surely it will be on sale here soon. Last May, when I was in London, I went into a bookstore and actually held the coveted book in my hands. I thumbed through it lovingly, skimming the text and carried it around for a while, fully intending to buy it. By the time I got ready to leave the bookstore, though, I had already grabbed more books than I could comfortably handle, and I was worried about paying surcharges for overweight luggage. Thinking again that surely the book would be released in the US soon, I reluctantly culled it from my stack of purchases.

Fast forward a year: still no Portobello release in the US! According to the US amazon.com, there's no scheduled release date. I honestly don't understand it. Still, I'm not one to let a little thing like not being able to buy the book stop me, so I began to scour WorldCat for libraries in the US who might be so kind as to lend me the book. I would like to offer a grateful shout out to the kind folks at the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, who came through with the book on Interlibrary Loan. You guys are stars!!!

So, after all that, on to the book. This one is really of more interest than usual to an anglophile such as myself due to the setting alone. The events in the novel take place around the Portobello Road area of London. There are plenty of descriptions not only of the famous market, but also of the pubs and neighborhoods (both good and bad) in the area.

The novel really centers around three characters, and how their lives intersect. First we have Eugene Wren, an art dealer who is living an upper-class life with his doctor fiancee, Ella. Next, we have Ella's patient Joel Roseman, who is slowly sinking into mental illness. Finally, there is the young burglar Lance, who has been reluctantly taken in by a distant relative into a crumbling, decrepit house.

The story begins with Joel being attacked (or more likely, having a panic attack and injuring himself) in the street. He is taken to hospital, but in the upheaval manages to lose an envelope containing 115 pounds. This envelope is found by Eugene. Since Eugene doesn't need the money from this sudden windfall, and since he's frequently seen "lost cat" posters in his neighborhood, he hits on the idea of posting fliers in the area saying he's found a sum of cash "between 90 and 160 pounds" and asking anyone who lost the money to contact him. Naturally, opportunistic Lance sees the notice and immediately decides to try his luck. He contacts Eugene, who asks Lance to come to his house to explain how much money he lost and where he lost it. Now, I know Eugene is supposed to be a somewhat trusting and naive soul, but it makes no sense at all that he wouldn't just ask the person over the phone how much he'd lost, rather than inviting him to his house. Once Lance arrives, he is immediately impressed by the vast art treasures on display in Eugene's house, and he instantly starts working on a plan to break in. He guesses the wrong amount of money for the lost loot, and is shown the door.

At the same time, Eugene has shown a propensity for addictive behavior. He has been able to overcome an addiction to alcohol, but is putting on weight. In an attempt to stop overeating, he begins to buy a new sugar-free candy, Chocorange. In another odd twist in the story, he becomes secretive and ashamed about the candy, hiding massive amounts in his house and inventing excuses to be alone so he can eat them. His hidden addiction nearly costs him everything, and it is inexplicable. Why is he so secretive and ashamed about eating some candy? It's not very believable . . .

Joel is extremely isolated, although he is financially well cared for as his executive father supports him. He becomes overly dependent on Ella, Eugene's fiance, when she visits him in the hospital to deliver the money Eugene found. He continues to call her to his house as his condition worsens. Ella attempts to get him to see therapists and gets carers in to stay with him, but he continues to deteriorate.

In the meantime, Lance is being threatened by the new man in his ex-girlfriend's life. Lance was living with the glamorous Gemma, but he punched her in the mouth when she asked him to get a job. She threw him out, and now Lance is informed he must come up with 1000 pounds to pay for the tooth Gemma lost when he punched her, or else. Lance uses his burglary skills to try to come up with the money. In the meantime, Gemma has come back around and is visiting Lance secretly at his new home with his great uncle. This is yet another twist in the story that doesn't ring true. Gemma is described as looking like Paris Hilton, or as if she just came off a catwalk and lives in an immaculate flat. Why in the world would she want to hook up with a smelly, unemployed, unmotivated man who had already abused her???

There is another unbelievable turn in the story when one of a pair of criminals attempts to convince his cohort in crime that they must go to the police and confess. Why didn't he just go to the police himself???


While there are plenty of bad events and a few deaths in the story, these things end up improving the lives of the people who survive. I just wish the way they got there had been a bit more realistic.
Final verdict for Portobello: Three Gherkins, for a great setting but ultimately peculiar and outlandish plot twists

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