Tigerlily’s Orchids by Ruth Rendell

“Many people lead virtuous lives not because they resist temptation, but because temptation never comes their way.”

As a long-time fan of Ruth Rendell, I am always ready to grab her latest book, so fast on the heels of Portobello comes another stand-alone tale, Tigerlily’s Orchids. Just as Portobello focused on the occupants of a particular neighbourhood, Tigerlily’s Orchids concentrates on the residents of the flats of Lichfield House in the outer suburbs of London.

The newest resident of the flats in Stuart Font, a fortunate young man in many ways. He has the looks of a male model (and the vanity to match) and he’s just inherited 400,000 pounds from an eccentric great-aunt. While Stuart’s parents urge their son to get a job (and even send possible employment his way), Stuart has other plans. Against his parents’ advice to wait out the falling home prices, he spends half the inheritance on a flat in Lichfield house. With the rest of the money, he intends to be a gentleman of leisure and perhaps take a year or two before seeking employment. His plans are complicated by the fact he has an expensive lover–Claudia, a deputy fashion editor for a newspaper. She expects to be taken to the best restaurants and even at one point manoeuvres the purchase of a necklace for a mere 1000 pounds. One of the reasons Stuart is disinclined to work is so that he can continue his complicated affair with Claudia, and that means he needs to keep his days free so that they can spend them in bed together while her husband is at work.

When the book begins, Stuart is planning a house-warming party, and he’s drawing up a guest list that will include all the other residents: three single female students, Dr. Michael Constantine and his wife, a couple of middle-aged singles,  Marius Potter, Rose Preston-Jones, and Olwen, a sixty year old alcoholic. Also in attendance will be a couple of Stuart’s friends, the building’s caretaker and his buxom wife and an assortment of neighbours. As it turns out, the party is a significant occasion that ends badly.

The novel establishes a growing sense of malignancy which is coupled with the idea that no one will emerge unscathed from the events that take place. To describe Tigerlily’s Orchids as a crime novel is to ignore the subtle nuances of the plot, for while many crimes take place in these pages, not all of these crimes can be labelled neatly with a perp and a victim. Rendell’s characters are considered normal people–the sort of people we know and work with. A fair number of the characters have something or another to be ashamed about, and the crimes in these pages run the gamut from murder to enabling addiction. In Portobello, addiction played a role (the main character was addicted to diet sweets), and in Tigerlily’s Orchids we see the same sort of behaviours: addiction coupled with obsession. While Olwen’s addiction to alcohol moves blindly forward, gathering momentum as the book continues, it becomes clear that many other characters suffer from dangerous obsessions. Stuart is obsessed with his lover, Claudia, but eventually those roles as reversed, but there are several other obsessions afoot. And these obsessions, as Rendell so deliciously shows, blind the various characters to reality with catastrophic results. Dr. Michael Constantine, for example, is a non-practicing physician who writes a column. His obsession with crushing any sort of non-medical treatments through his writing takes him on a one-way ticket to unemployment as he refuses to even consider any other point of view.

By far my favourite character is Olwen:

Reclining, her feet up on a cushion, she reflected as she often did, on having, at the age of sixty, attained her lifelong aim. Through two marriages, both unsatisfactory, seemingly endless full-time work, houses she had disliked, uncongenial stepchildren, and dour relations, she was at last doing what she had always wanted to do but had rigidly, for various reasons, stringently controlled. She was drinking the unlimited amount of alcohol she had longed for. She was, she supposed, but without rancour or regret, drinking herself to death.

Olwen has given up on relationships and humanity in general. She doesn’t want human communication. Instead she’s locked in a tango of death with alcohol. She’s devised a way of coping with people–especially people who preach to her or try to get in the way of her addiction. Her main, practically only, response to anyone is “not really”:

Olwen had long ago discovered that this was a response which may be made with impunity to almost any enquiry, including “Are you well?’ and “Are you free on Saturday?” Not that people often asked her anything. She made it plain that she was mostly inaccessible.

Rendell proceeds to show just how that phrase “not really” works so well for Olwen’s desire to alienate people. Think I might try it out.

The lives of Rendell’s characters are set against the economic downturn, and the action reflects the changes. As shops close or hold desperate sales, the characters respond accordingly. The recession impacts the characters’ relationships, and it certainly turns up the heat. In one scene, Stuart loads up on furniture from a local shop. He doesn’t particularly like the stuff he buys but it’s on sale, and he can’t resist buying a mirror for the vanity feedback it offers.

Tigerlily’s Orchids explores the horrors of suburbia, and here Rendell creates a neighbourhood crucible, adding just enough of the ingredients–passion, jealousy, and obsession until she achieves combustion. While The Tree of Hands is my favourite Rendell (and I doubt it’ll ever be supplanted), Tigerlily’s Orchids is a welcome return to this author.

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15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Rendell, Ruth

15 responses to “Tigerlily’s Orchids by Ruth Rendell

  1. pris

    I liked this book a lot. Who was your favorite character/ I liked Olwen- she was her own person even through all that booze.

  2. I know an Olwen–not that she’s an alcoholic, but she has this method of deliberately alienating people. In this case, she deliberately wears old tatty clothes (so that she looks like a bag lady) and then secretly laughs at people when they give her dirty looks and move away.

  3. Oh… I’m really tempted. I saw it in a book shop not long ago but then I thought I wait until I know more. I know more now and it sounds like another one of her very good ones. I do the “not really ” thing occasionally. The reactions are interesting and quite varied. Litlove recommended “The Brimstone Wedding”. It will be the next one I read but I’ll keep this one in mind.

  4. I think it’s better than Portobello. I really liked it a lot. Thanks for the tip on The Brimstone Wedding. I’ll check it out.

  5. It’s been a while since my last Ruth Rendell. I’d better read The Tree of Hands first.
    PS: The “not really” phrase reminds me the “I’d rather not” of Melville’s Bartleby.

  6. Pingback: MostlyFiction Book Reviews » PORTOBELLO by Ruth Rendell

  7. We have a DVD collection of Ruth Rendell mysteries produced by the BBC (I think) and are slowly working our way through it. She does seem to specialize in “ordinary” people who have a troublesome defective gene in their makeup — which makes for good tv. At this point, I think I’d prefer to watch rather than read, but that may be a flaw on my part.

  8. I don’t know Ruth Rendell at all. I certainly had no idea she was so skilled – I’d always had the impression she just wrote the Inspector Wexford stuff.

    Between this and Portobello which would you say was the better entry? If it’s relevant I actually grew up around Portobello road, which probably makes that an obvious front runner.

    • Max, she has 2 sets of books–the Inspector Wexford series and then the stand-alones which are psychological novels rather than straight crime and solution. I’ve been a Rendell fan for years. She’s written under other names too, and I haven’t managed to read them all. She excels at creating this tight space and then showing how her characters are influenced by their environment and each other.

      Of the two, I preferred Tigerlily’s Orchids, but if you grew up around the P Road, you might really like that one.

  9. So, if I were going to suggest a Rendell to a person just getting back into regular reading – like, say, Mr Gums – which would you recommend? To give you a very general sense of his likes, he likes to read Jane Austen, he likes to watch crime, he didn’t much like the two Peter Temples he’s read because the language is too choppy. Do you think he’d like Rendell and if so where would you recommend he start?

  10. BTW, love this review (as I usually do yours).

  11. Rendell is never choppy. The Tree of Hands is my favourite of the ones I’ve read. It’s a older novel, but it’s one I think about regularly. It’s very complex and addresses various moral questions. I prefer her psychological novels over the Insp. Wexford series (they are straight police procedurals). I read those too, but I prefer the digging into the grey areas of the WHYS rather than the WHOS.

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