Book Review: Loose cash leads to surprising developments
Ruth Rendell is a genius at setting up an unlikely premise that is just this side of believable, then taking her plot and characters in even more unlikely directions that can be hilariously funny and darkly depressing at the same time.
At the start of "Portobello" -- the title refers to the London road and its environs, not to the mushroom -- a disturbed young man named Joel Roseman withdraws cash from a bank machine. On the way home he is mugged and suffers a heart attack, but he survives. Some of the money, 115 pounds, fell onto the street.
It is found by Eugene Wren, a wealthy art dealer, who posts a sign that cash was found and will be returned if the caller can tell him the exact amount that was lost. This sets off a chain of events in which each moment contains a new surprise, and the lives of everyone involved will be changed forever.
There are actually three separate plot strands that Ms. Rendell keeps going simultaneously, and they are connected by past events as well as by the throbbing, vital high and low life of this fascinating neighborhood.
The main character is Wren, who at 51 has conquered alcohol and overeating addictions but develops an embarrassing addiction to a sugarless candy called Chocorange. He keeps this addiction from his fiancee, a physician Ella Cotswold, but knows he will have to confess it or give it up when they go to Italy for their honeymoon.
Ella in turn, becomes involved with the schizophrenic Roseman and his dysfunctional family when she visits him in the hospital to give him the lost money.
The third plot line involves lowlife in the area around Portobello Road. Lance Platt, an inept petty thief who lives in squalor with his felon-turned-evangelist uncle Gilbert Gibson, tries to falsely claim the money from Wren.
When he guesses wrong on the amount, he uses the opportunity to stake out Wren's luxurious home for a robbery. He then gets a lot more than he had bargained for.
The book has a Dickensian quality in its sense of caricature and its depiction of a society gone wrong. Her vocabulary is enormous. (I learned at least three words new to me -- widdershins, inanition and percipience -- while reading this story.)
The characters jump off the page. 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 and saccharine.
First Published September 19, 2010 12:00 am