Reading a Ruth Rendell novel is the literary equivalent of walking down a sketchy street after the bars have closed. There might not be anything obviously threatening in one's surroundings, but that feeling of dread just keeps mounting with each step you take --- or, in this case, with each page you turn. What starts off as an apparently straightforward portrait of a London apartment building quickly grows seriously creepy, as you realize --- even before you really know it --- that terrible things are going to happen to one, or some, or maybe all of these people.
As she did in her previous stand-alone novel, PORTOBELLO, Rendell crafts a detailed, precise portrait of a specific place --- in this case, a middle-class apartment building and its environs --- and the people who live there.
As she did in her previous stand-alone novel, PORTOBELLO, Rendell crafts a detailed, precise portrait of a specific place --- in this case, a middle-class apartment building and its environs --- and the people who live there. Although TIGERLILY'S ORCHIDS has less to do with the changing demographics of London's neighborhoods than its predecessor did, these concerns, coupled with the repercussions of the recent economic downturn, still make their presence felt in the inhabitants' lives and concerns.
At the center of the narrative is vain Stuart Font, a handsome young man with a married lover (who, in turn, has a violent and vindictive husband). He has recently come into a bit of money with which he's purchased his flat (and used as an excuse to unwisely quit his job), and has the bright idea to bring together all his neighbors for a housewarming party in the dead of winter. And what a winter it is, filled with more snow than Londoners have seen in years. The wintry weather causes more than a little dismay for another resident, Olwen, an older woman who is systematically and with great determination drinking herself to death. The icy steps and snowy sidewalks put a damper on her trips to the liquor store, however, so she's soon throwing herself (and her ATM card) on the mercy of her neighbors, paying them to pick up her gin from the corner store.
Olwen isn't the only one with a secret addiction, though. Wally, the building superintendent, harbors an unhealthy fascination with the children who play at the neighborhood playground. And then there's Duncan, the old man across the street who spies on his neighbors, including the mysterious, beautiful young woman whom he nicknames "Tigerlily" and who soon becomes the object of Stuart's new obsessions.
Obsessions are at the heart of almost every character in TIGERLILY'S ORCHIDS; the narrative circles back on itself repeatedly, illustrating how even the most "normal" people can grow fixated on small details, minor notions, or even precious memories. The novel is also a morality play of sorts, as the characters readers are most likely to despise or pity wind up facing the most dire repercussions. But that's not to say that Rendell's book is just a story of lies and consequences. There's also a sweet (if slightly pathetic) love story --- and, of course, that well-drawn apartment building, which will carry on even if its inhabitants don't.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 4, 2011