The thing about reviewing a Ruth Rendell novel is that I’m predisposed to like almost anything she writes. Her plots are satisfying, her pacing is spot-on, her characters are intriguing (but not generally likable), and I don’t ever want to put her books down. They are the definition of compulsively readable. If the way handles some of the twists in her books is a little clunky, or if the values espoused are uncomfortable, it rarely troubles me for more than a few moments, because when I’m reading her books, I just want to know what’s going to happen. This is particularly true when she’s writing under her pseudonym, Barbara Vine, as she does in her latest book, The Child’s Child.
The Child’s Child begins and ends with a first-person narrative by a graduate student named Grace Easton. Grace’s grandmother has recently died and left her large house to Grace are her brother, Andrew. The siblings, who have always gotten along well, decide to share the house, which soon brings Grace is close contact with Andrew’s new boyfriend, the movie-star-handsome James Derain. James and Grace instantly dislike each other, largely because James shows scorn for Grace’s research topic, the plight of single mothers in fiction of the 19th and early 20th century, with some exploration of real-life parallels. Andrew tells Grace that in comparison to gay men, these women had it easy. Look at poor Oscar Wilde! Having a child taken away or being forced to marry doesn’t compare to his suffering. Although Grace acknowledges that gay men were made to suffer tremendously in the past, that doesn’t negate the sufferings of young women who were scorned by society for their mistakes.
As Grace and James continue to live under the same roof, their relationship gets more complicated, as does the question at the heart of their initial disagreement. These academic questions are not confined to the past because people continue to suffer persecution and shame today for who they are and what they’ve done, as both Grace and James learn.
In the course of her research, Grace is presented with a privately published manuscript that delves into this uncomfortable question of comparative sufferings. The manuscript, which makes up the middle section of the novel, is the story of another pair of siblings from the 1930s. John Goodwin, a schoolteacher, is in love with a man named Bertie but thoroughly ashamed of their relationship and planning to take a job in the country to get away from him and live a celibate life. As he makes his plans, his 15-year-old sister, Maud, becomes pregnant, and her parents wish to have nothing more to do with her. John, horrified by their parents’ behavior, decides that Maud should come live with him in a sham marriage, giving herself a home and him a family.
Of course, you can imagine that this decision brings with it innumerable complications. Bertie refuses to make himself totally absent—and John remains torn. Maud is disgusted by John’s behavior, and Bertie’s actions don’t do a thing to make Maud care about him. Quite the opposite, in fact, because Bertie is truly a nasty piece of work. Over the years, John becomes increasingly desperate and Maud increasingly bitter.
Maud and John do suffer at the hands of society, but they also suffer at their own hands. John chooses to let Bertie get under his skin—and into his wallet. Maud chooses to resent every person who doesn’t behave as she would wish. Their status as outsiders makes their mistakes more dire because they won’t have the support of the community when they stumble. They are victims of themselves and of the time.
Grace, Andrew, and James, on the other hand, live in more enlightened times, but even today, acceptance isn’t automatic. Andrew and James in particular have reason to know this. And of course, just as Maud and John are their own worst enemies in some respects, Grace, Andrew, and James bring on some of their own difficulties.
The stories of the parallel sets of siblings are murky and difficult in just the right way, even if the parallels between them are rather clunky. The reality is that times have changed, but they’ve changed in such a way that a perfect parallel isn’t possible. A perfect parallel, however, may be too neat to be satisfying, and Rendell wisely avoids trying to make things worse for Grace and better for Andrew in order to make the parallelism work. It feels untidy, but it also feels honest.
I think, in fact, that more untidiness might have been helpful at the novel’s ending. The denouement is somewhat too rapid and the difficulties too neatly wrapped up, and the ending ends up coming across as perhaps a little preachy about how far we’ve come—just a little love and acceptance, and everything will be all right. While I do think that more love and acceptance are good things, those inner demons aren’t so easily subdued, and a little more ambiguity about where Grace and Andrew stand at the end would have felt more realistic. I would prefer to have imagined the final moment than to have seen it.
Overall, however, I found The Child’s Child to be as reliably gripping as any Barbara Vine novel. I got frustrated with the characters and with their situations, but not with the book itself.