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The last book I read by Ruth Rendell ("The Water's Lovely") was quite frankly a big disappointment - I wrote a review on it at the time - and I wondered if it was just a blip or if things were going downhill with her writing, or if perhaps my tastes were just changing.
I got into reading Ruth Rendell books back in 2000 when on holiday and having finished my books I started on my mum's, and since then have read over 20 of her books. Anyway, having arrived at my parent's for a long weekend recently my mum excitedly handed over the two newest Ruth Rendell books which she bought at the airport to read on their holiday. She was raving about "Portobello" in particular and what a great book it was, so I hoped that I wouldn't be disappointed again.
Baroness Ruth Rendell was born in London in 1930, and it's not hard to see from reading her books that she is this age (although she doesn't look it) as things can be very old-fashioned, especially when it appears that she is making an attempt to be modern (and especially when talking about younger characters)! You can find out more about her here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Rendell - she's a pretty prolific writer, and I've enjoyed the majority of her books, even those which are quite dated now (she began writing in 1964).
"Portobello" was written in 2008, my paperback copy published in 2009 and with 376 pages and an rrp of £7.99. Pictures of windows in a flat on the front and the line "Our darkest fears can hide in the brightest places" which doesn't really relate to much that is in the story.
---Come for a walk along Portobello Road---
Eugene Wren (the central character) is a 50 year old wealthy man, working in an art gallery left to him by his father. His girlfriend GP Ella who is nearly 40 is besotted by him (although I'm not really sure why). Eugene has an addictive personality, and having had problems with alcohol and his weight, he becomes obsessed with a new sugar-free sweet called Chocorange.
One day Eugene finds a sum of money in the street (in an envelope), and rather then giving it to the police he advertises it on a lamppost saying "Found in Chepstow Villas, a sum of money between eighty and a hundred and sixty pounds. Anyone who has lost such a sum of money should apply to the phone number below." A bit of an odd thing to do, but Eugene is eccentric, so we'll let that one pass!
Two people come forward to claim the money - Lance who is a petty criminal, recently kicked out by his girlfriend Gemma (who has their baby Abelard - what sort of a stupid name? I think it's Rendell trying to give a baby the sort of name a young scrubber might give their kid these days, but it doesn't work) as he knocked out her tooth. He's currently living with his religious but nasty Uncle Gib who feeds him only eggs and black pudding and not much of it come to that. The second person is Joel, who has just had a heart attack, and is now seeing someone who isn't there - apparently schizophrenic (although I'm not convinced that Rendell has much of a clue about mental health problems).
The lives are all interwoven (although not very well) mainly due to their living in close proximity to Portobello Market and in due course there is arson and murder (sounds more exciting than it is), and that is basically the plot. I'm not giving anything away really, but then there isn't really anything to give away, as there aren't really any shocks or surprises in the book, in fact not much really happens at all!
I felt when I first started reading that there was potentially a good story ahead. I quite liked the idea of an addiction to this Chocorange sweet (there are so many different ways in which this could have been taken), but I kept expecting something to happen. It just didn't. I also expected a really interesting finale where something would happen involving all of the characters, and it didn't happen. While I was really into the book at the start, as it went on I found myself more and more disappointed, and it just seemed to fizzle out.
---So, is Ruth Rendell back on Track?---
Unfortunately not. Although this book is better than "The Water's Lovely" it's still not up to Ruth Rendell's past standard. So much of what annoyed me in "The Water's Lovely" annoyed me again in "Portobello" - the references to modern culture which are just so bizarre. In fact it's quite embarrassing to read really - all it would have taken is an editor to sit her down and explain that a certain reference is just wrong! I would go as far as saying that this book probably wouldn't have been published if it wasn't for Ruth Rendell's name behind it.
I got very irritated by the inconsistencies in the book, in particular when it came to the psychotherapist who was that one minute and was a psychiatrist the next. Ruth Rendell needs to start getting her facts straight. Since the majority of time this character was a psychotherapist rather than a psychiatrist then I'm not sure what she was doing prescribing medication. I know that occasionally a psychiatrist might also be a psychotherapist, but this was certainly not hinted it. It does really annoy me when people write about issues but don't bother to research them first. I suppose that someone as renowned as Ruth Rendell can get away with what she wants, but personally I find it a bit careless. That's not even with me starting on the other errors (such as dates changing) which some people reading this have picked up on (I wasn't paying close enough attention by that point!)
This book's probably something that you should read if you are a Ruth Rendell fan, although I'd suggest getting it out of the library rather than buying it. For those who are new to Ruth Rendell, I'd recommend "A Sight for Sore Eyes", or really any of her books written in the 1990s which seems to have been her peak. I am now reading her latest Inspector Wexford novel ("The Monster in the Box"), so I'm certainly not giving up on her just yet. Despite its flaws, "Portobello" was still an easy and relatively enjoyable read and took me only a few days to get through.
I have given this book 3 out of 5 for two reasons - firstly because it was better than "The Water's Lovely" (which I gave 2 stars), but secondly because my mum really enjoyed it so unless my mum like Rendell is also losing the plot, then it must appeal to some people (incidentally the reviews on Amazon are extremely mixed, with 3 stars being average). I realise that in my late 20s I am perhaps a bit young for Ruth Rendell books, so perhaps the appeal is more with the over 60s like my mum!