three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
By: 
Ruth Rendell
user_rating: 
0

A-PortobelloBritish writer Ruth Rendell, a member of the House of Lords and an award-winning crime writer, is best known for her psychological thrillers and murder mysteries, including the Inspector Wexford police procedural series.

The Story: London's Notting Hill neighborhood, beneath its posh surface, teems with eccentrics from all walks of life. When Joel Roseman, a young man with an aversion to sunlight, collapses on the street and loses an envelope of cash, he sets in motion a collision of classes. Fifty-year-old Eugene Wren, a wealthy art dealer shamefully addicted to sugar-free candy, discovers the envelope on the street and determines to find its rightful owner. But instead of alerting the police to his find, he posts "found" signs around the Portobello Road market. Enter Ella Cotswald, Eugene's sweet-tempered fiancée; Lance, an amateur burglar, and his fanatic preacher uncle; and other quirky characters, and the stage is set for some life-changing interactions.
Scribner. 290 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781439148518

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"The book has a Dickensian quality in its sense of caricature and its depiction of a society gone wrong. ... The page-to-page surprises are so clever that the reader is left agape at each twist and turn. The pieces fit together brilliantly, even if the ending is a bit too pat." Robert Croan

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Portobello strikes a few off-notes, the most serious involving Eugene's crippling obsession. ... That aside, the sly tricks Rendell has up her sleeve counteract any faults." Adam Woog

Spectator (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"As ever, Rendell writes with wry and witty authority. This may not be a crime novel in the traditional sense, but don't miss it on that account." Andrew Taylor

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Applying her formidable skills as a puppeteer, Rendell encourages the members of this cast to indulge their various obsessions in a plot that unfolds with the bleak gravity of Greek drama while following the insane logic of French farce. ... Although Rendell seems to be taking a dispassionate view of her characters' perverse behavior, she's a sly one, showing more sympathy for their pathetic fixations than for the prevailing social attitudes that condemn them." Marilyn Stasio

Times (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"She supplies a satisfying ... ending in which she knits all the threads together with a casual flourish that shows veteran expertise. But her engagement with her characters doesn't always have the close-quarters emotional power and psychological intensity that her best novels excel at providing." Lucy Atkins

Guardian (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Her book is further damaged by fussy social stereotypes fretting over minor foibles, dubious motivation, and too much window dressing, giving rise to the feeling that Rendell is using the area for its social and commercial cachet when the reality of her story would be more appropriate to the unfashionable districts she has previously written about. ... Despite defects of detail and construction, a plausible misanthropy prevails, a gallery of minor grotesques amounting to a forensic essay on bad parenting." Chris Petit

Critical Summary

Although Portobello may not be crime master Ruth Rendell's best book to date, this work of psychological suspense--about obsession, random connections, and the frailty of wealth--nonetheless captivated most critics. As always, Rendell pens an enjoyable, intelligent work; here, Portobello Road, which links people and events, takes center stage as a "living thing: it squeezes, snakes, climbs and dips, and by the end of the book even ‘draws breath'" (Times). Yet if Rendell's Portobello Road compelled reviewers, other characters felt penned at arms' length, and the narrative at times seemed on autopilot. Still, few writers engage like Rendell, who always manages to stay one step ahead of her readers.