Vine’s 14th (The Birthday Present, 2009, etc.) is a novel within a novel—well, within a novella, anyway—in which both tales revolve around a straight woman’s unexpected relationship with a gay man.
Unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand with James Derain, her brother’s lover, Ph.D. student Grace Easton takes refuge from her troubles—her brother Andrew’s cool reception to the news, his and James’ involvement as witnesses to a brutal hate crime—by rereading The Child’s Child, a novel written by her architect friend Toby’s late father, Martin Greenwell. Although Martin had been the well-regarded author of 12 novels, The Child’s Child, written in 1951, lay unpublished for half a century, unpublishable for much of that time because of its frank (for then) account of homosexual passion. The passion in question is Bristol biology teacher John Goodwin’s selfless love for office clerk Bertie Webber, a love that dare not speak its name in 1929. Hopelessly besotted with Bertie, John vows to give him up in response to a crisis in his family: his 15-year-old sister Maud’s pregnancy by a friend’s forgettable brother. When their parents banish Maud from their home, John matches an ingenious solution to her troubles: He’ll take her to his new place in Dartcombe, introduce her as his wife and shield her from reprobation. Readers would sense the impending approach of unwanted complications even if Vine weren’t really Ruth Rendell (The St. Zita Society, 2012, etc.). Suffice it to say that Bertie proves miserably unworthy of John’s devotion; the pressures of Maud’s uneventful life have a profound impact on her character; and the brief return to the present-day story of Grace Easton provides just the right sense of balance and conclusion.
The overwhelming sadness of the events in both stories is leavened by the matter-of-fact firmness with which Vine measures them out. Not even fans who expect more felonies will be able to put this one down.