THE HOUSE OF STAIRS by Barbara Vine

THE HOUSE OF STAIRS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Like the two earlier Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine novels (A Dark-Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion), this seriously flawed yet mesmerizing tale is a retrospective account of the events leading up to a crime, less a whodunit than a what-will-happen? Noting that the plot of Henry James' peerless psychological novel The Wings of the Dove is the stuff of melodrama, Rendell releases the melodrama by rewriting the novel as a mystery. Elizabeth Vetch--a trashy novelist marking her fifth decade by waiting to see whether she has inherited Huntington's chorea from her doomed mother--glimpses her old friend Christabel Sanger, released from prison after serving 14 years for a mysterious crime, on a London street. The sight of Bell Sanger stirs a torrent of long-suppressed memories about the House of Stairs, the five-story house in Notting Hill where Elizabeth's Aunt Cosette, gentle, charming, generous, prematurely widowed, assembles a household reminiscent of the ill-assorted cooperative of misfits in A Fatal Inversion--a group including Elizabeth, Bell, a large and changing group of young hangers-on, and the succession of young men with whom Cosette takes up, and by whom she is successively victimized, until she finally and fatally falls in love with Bell's brother Mark. Rendell labors throughout under a load of problems that would sink a lesser novelist. The constant alternation between Elizabeth's narration of the past (Elizabeth, loving Cosette but in love with Bell, gradually realizes the betrayal her lover has planned for her benefactor) and the story's present (Bell calls on Elizabeth, who repeats the cycle by fatalistically taking her in to live) is irritatingly contrived. Henry James casts too portentous a shadow, and readers of The Wings of the Dove will see the climax coming long before Elizabeth, after reams of Had-I-But-Known foreshadowing, sees fit to divulge it. No real mystery here, then; but Rendell's obsessed principals are as compelling as ever, and the air of fatality, of impotent prescience, so dominant in her recent work, is harrowing.

ISBN: 517-57252-4
Publisher: Harmony
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