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The Birthday Presentby Ruth Rendell
Synopses & Reviews
Ivor Tesham is a handsome, single, young member of Parliament whose political star is on the rise. When he meets a woman in a chance encounter-a beautiful, leggy, married woman named Hebe-the two become lovers obsessed with their trysts, spiced up by what the newspapers like to call “adventure sex.”
Its the dress-up and role-play that inspire Ivor to create a surprise birthday present for his beloved that involves a curbside kidnapping. Its all intended as mock-dangerous foreplay, but then things take a dark turn.
After things go horribly wrong, Ivor begins to receive anonymous letters that reveal astonishingly speciﬁc details about the affair and its aftermath. Somehow he must keep his role from being uncovered-and his political future from being destroyed by scandal.
Like a heretic on the inquisitors rack, Ivor is not to be spared the exquisitely slow and tortuous unfolding of events, as hints, nuances, and small revelations lay his darkest secrets hideously bare for all the world to see.
The Birthday Present is a deft, insightful, and compulsively readable exploration of obsessive desire-and the dark twists of fate that can shake the lives of even those most insulated by privilege, sophistication, and power.
"British master Vine (the pen name of Ruth Rendell), a life Labor peer who used her knowledge of politics in 2002's The Blood Doctor to explore the personal rather than the political ramifications of power, does both in this intricate novel, which charts the wreckage caused by Ivor Tesham, a Conservative member of Parliament, who concocts a kinky present for his married mistress — a mock kidnapping that results in a mixup of identities and murder. While nothing links the MP to the crime, the elitist Tesham, with his callous attitude toward people and public service alike, realizes justice may eventually catch up with him. Vine knows 'how we walk all the time on that thin crust that covers terrible abysses.' The consequences for the innocent victims of Tesham's recklessness provide the book's deep and genuine pathos. Full of psychological insight, this is an absolute must for Vine/Rendell enthusiasts — and those who have yet to encounter her genius." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Barbara Vine is the pen name of Ruth Rendell, it's announced clearly here, and I admit I don't quite understand why Ruth Rendell would want to be Barbara Vine, since she seems to be doing just fine as Ruth Rendell, but there it is. Under either name, she's what you'd have to call — cliche coming up! — a consummate professional. Within the first five pages of "The Birthday Present," you know you're... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) in the hands of a mystery/thriller writer who's in perfect control of her material. In addition to that fabulous control, Rendell/Vine maintains a matronly, almost magisterial tone that lends unexpected dignity to the goriest, creepiest material. It is her trademark. The story here is told by Rob Delgado, who, despite the slightly exotic quality of his Spanish last name, has been brought up in an upper-middle-class environment in a picturesque village close to London, has been to all the right schools and works as an accountant for a very wealthy set of London clients. His brother-in-law, Ivor Tesham, has also done well for himself. He's an MP in the Conservative Party who entertains the highest ambitions. In Fitzgeraldian terms, Rob is Nick Carraway to Ivor's Gatsby. It is through Rob's sympathetic yet objective eyes that we see Ivor's rise and — it's given away in the first few pages — his inevitable fall. Rob is married to Iris, Ivor's sister. He is a family man. The loves of his life are his children. Infidelity would be inconceivable for him; the high point of his young adult life is to take his firstborn daughter for a walk in a park, with her safely strapped to his heart in a Snugli. Ivor is another sort of Brit altogether: an incorrigible womanizer, an adventurer. He hates the thought of being tied down — except in the literal sense by a slut with a whip and boots. Marriage seems entirely out of the question for him; or, rather, it's so far down the road that it may look something like death. He may have to do it some day, for political reasons, but right now he's preoccupied with his intense affair with Hebe. Hebe, who is blond, slim and radically beautiful, shares Ivor's tastes in sex, but she lives a desperately pokey life in a grim little suburb, with a relatively poor husband and a little boy whom she neglects. She's a modern Madame Bovary, dying of boredom and what she perceives as a lack of the good life. When she meets Ivor at one of her husband's charity functions, she clamps her jaws down on the self-regarding MP like a gila monster. She doesn't want marriage, far from it. She wants studded dog-collars and laced thigh-high boots and a nice collection of heaven-knows-what kind of weird sex baubles. Her only problem? Who will provide the alibi for the afternoons and evenings she takes off to be with Ivor? Her alibi lady turns out to be Jane, a plain little nothing of a friend whom Hebe keeps around as a foil for her own astonishing beauty. We hear the other half of this story from Jane, told in a series of diaries. Jane is a familiar character in English novels, the neglected governess or the spinster from Dickens. Needless to say, she burns with jealousy and grievance, hating her life across the board — beginning with her mother, ending with Hebe and the reckless, handsome Conservative MP, Ivor Tesham. All this comes out, beautifully calibrated, within the first 10th of the book. Then, as a "birthday present," Ivor arranges for Hebe to be kidnapped (with her full consent, of course) by a couple of masked thugs, bound, gagged, cuffed and delivered to Rob and Iris' house, where Ivor and Hebe will indulge in an evening of thoroughly British sadomasochistic sex. (Despite their respectability, Iris and Rob have said yes to Ivor's request for the loan of their house because — well, how could they not? And how could they be aware of the hideous ramifications of this evening?) Hebe is duly kidnapped by the two thugs, one of whom runs a red light during the abduction. One thug and Hebe are killed. The other thug lingers in a coma. There's an immediate media mix-up about the crime. Why would anyone want to kidnap an obscure housewife with a poor husband who wouldn't be able to pay a ransom? The police settle upon another, more glamorous blonde as the intended victim; she turns out to be a red herring, and the cops are left at a dead end. Now is the time for Ivor to step forward and clear things up, but of course he doesn't. Among other things, it would be an affront to his English gentleman's sense of dignity. And by taking this course of action, he sets in motion another very British theme: how the mighty must fall. Again, we're told that Ivor comes to a bad end on the second page: "Mention his name and most people will say, 'Who?' while the rest think for a bit and ask if he wasn't 'the one who got involved in all that sleaze back in whenever it was ... '" It takes a few hundred pages more to see exactly what happens to Ivor, the car-accident people, Rob and Iris, the aggrieved Jane and all the children. Despite its soft-porn highlights, the author addresses this material as if she were Winston Churchill's nanny. Her tone in every line is maternal, soothing, proper. You really do feel cradled. You can keep on reading this with tranquillity even as your plane lurches down out of the sky. Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
Barbara Vines acclaimed novels include The Minotaur, The Blood Doctor, and Annas Book. She has won many awards for literary accomplishment, both as Barbara Vine and as Ruth Rendell, including three Edgar Awards and four Gold Daggers.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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