Saturday, October 27, 2007

Book Review: A Site for Sore Eyes

I'm not sure where I picked up this book--some used book sale somewhere. The title caught my eye, though, because I love a clever title. And the fact that this is a mystery novel, a genre I was especially fond of in my youth. So, even though I didn't recognize the author (Ruth Rendell), I took a chance.

My first surprise was the book takes place in England. That information isn't in the blurb nor was it apparent in the first chapter. However, when the characters in the second chapter were talking about pubs and "ciggies," it dawned on me that this was not taking place in the U.S. When one of the characters moves to Notting Hill, I realized they were in London.

That mystery solved, I moved on to the next, which is how the three primary characters and their associates were going to finally come together.

First off there is Harriet. Harriet is famous because of a portrait painted of her and her rock star boyfriend. The only talent Harriet has is that she's breathtakingly beautiful--a talent she's traded on since she was 14. When the rock star throws her out, Harriet has to find another way to survive. She catches the eye of Franklin, a successful, married older man. Franklin divorces his wife, marries Harriet, and buys the house where the famous portrait was painted.

Meanwhile, there's Teddy. Teddy's parents, Eileen and Jimmy became engaged when Eileen found a ring in the ladies room on a trip organized by their pub. They got married after Jimmy's mum died and Jimmy realized that there was no one to take care of him and his brother, Keith, who also lived with their mother. Eileen didn't think she could become pregnant and was astonished when she did--but not enough to bother with going to the doctor. Nor had she or Jimmy thought of any names for their new child until their neighbor brought over a teddy bear as a "Welcome Baby" gift.

Having Teddy didn't make either Jimmy or Eileen sit up and take notice of what was going on around them. They drifted through their lives, not paying much attention to Teddy or to anything else. Keith had his motorbike and his cars. Only the neighbor, Mr. Chance, noticed the young boy and taught him woodworking. And Teddy's grandmother, who offered to give him a pound a week as allowance, but stipulated that Teddy had to come to her place to get it. And say, "Thank you, Grandma."

Despite this rather bleak upbringing, Teddy developed an inner esthetic, an appreciation for beauty. He attends a lecture while in college and during the slide show sees the portrait of Harriet. He is caught by the color, the lines, the composition. He is studying Graphic Design and Arts in college and, as a final project (kind of a senior thesis), he has to make something. He designs a mirror in a wood frame, which is exhibited in a local gallery, along with the projects of other students.

The third character is Francine. When she was a young girl, her mother was murdered while she was in her room, having been sent their as punishment. Francine hears the gunshots, hurries downstairs to find her mother in a pool of blood, which is where her father finds her when he returns home from work. Francine is traumatized and cannot speak. To help her, her father takes her to a child psychologist, Julia. Julia's qualifications are a bit dicey, but she does have a license. Julia takes an almost obsessive interest in Francine--which, in fact, does become obsessive once she marries Francine's father and becomes Francine's stepmother. Julia keeps Francine on a very tight leash, not allowing her to visit her friends at their houses or go to the movies or other normal activities. When Francine decides to attend Oxford, Julia talks about moving there to be near Francine. Instead, Francine decides to take a "gap" year. And her friend, Holly, persuades her to go on a double date and attend the exhibition where Teddy's mirror is displayed.

Teddy sees her and is struck by how beautiful and how perfect Francine is.

Meanwhile, Harriet, now considerably older, has a habit of hiring young handymen and seducing them. When she sees Teddy's ad (he's decided to go into cabinetry for himself now that he's graduated), she decides she needs some bookcases and hires him.

And the stage is finally set: three damaged people whose lives intersect. There are serious consequences because of that intersection, their actions, and the actions (or inactions) of those closest to them.

Site for Sore Eyes isn't a classic mystery in the Agatha Christie sense. Rather, it's more a psychological study, almost Hitchcockian. I wanted to shake some of the characters, those who showed they might have had some sense. It was kind of like watching a train wreck--horrifying and fascinating.

A good weekend book to curl up with under the covers with your favorite hot drink and snack nearby. No deep psychological dilemmas. Just kind of fun, in a creepy sort of way.

Since it was written in 1998 and is not by a commercially popular author, it probably won't be the easiest book to find.

On the March Hare scale: 3 out 5 Golden Bookmarks