What do any of us really know about our neighbors... or more to the point, what do we think we know about them? This is a question I’ve had (alarming) reason to consider recently, and the answer, I fear, is that we don’t know very much, at all.
It wasn’t always like this; in the past, people tended to stay in one place longer, which gave them more opportunity (and reason) to get to know their neighbors better. That's all changed over the last half-century, though; we’re constantly on the move, and the bulk of our communications occur electronically. All those getting-to-know-you cliches (which I'm only familiar with from Classic TV) like summer block parties, visits from Welcome Wagon ladies bearing casseroles and cakes, and cozy afternoon coffee klatsches are now just quaint relics of a bygone era. As for borrowing a cup of sugar (a couple of eggs, milk, whatever) from the near-total stranger down the hall (or across the street)? Not only is that a totally foreign concept to us, but it's a whole lot of iffy when it comes to safety concerns.
What we're forced to rely upon, then--instead of any first-hand knowledge--is a bunch of assumptions and impressions based solely on casual observations (and precious little in the way of meaningful personal contact). So it's really no wonder we’re surprised or even shocked when we happen to find out what actually goes on behind our neighbors’ closed doors... as is the case with a small group of neighbors in Ruth Rendell’s latest psychological thriller, Tigerlily’s Orchids.
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It’s easy enough for those of us who’ve never been part of a close-knit community to move in somewhere and adhere to the correct degree of polite friendliness (a nod hello in the hallway or on the street) while maintaining the appropriate distance (not venturing into someone else’s personal space or yard). Things are considerably more difficult for someone used to a lot of contact with those around him, though, because the desire for connection is strong.
Twenty-something Stuart Font has been living in his Litchfield House flat in London for several months, when it occurs to him that he knows next to nothing about any of his neighbors. (Not, mind you, that he fancies any of them to be particularly fascinating; it’s just that he grew up attending parties and, well, knowing people, and finds himself missing the interaction.) The only thing for it, he decides, is to host a housewarming party (for himself), a meet-&-greet set to cool music and fueled by copious amounts of alcohol and chichi hors d'oeurves. (Contributing to his sudden yen for bonhomie is the fact that he's currently jobless--by choice--and, aside from semi-regular assignations with Claudia, his married paramour, finds himself in the undesirable position of being bored and lonely.) So, he proceeds to invite all the other residents of the building, as well as the neighbors across the street and to either side.
As far as Stuart--an uncommonly handsome young man (and preternaturally aware of that fact, if we're being honest, here)--is concerned, the guest list (which he’s only able to assemble after perusing the names on the mail slots, because it isn't as though he's ever really wanted to know these people before) is sorely lacking. There’s the middle-aged woman, Ms. Rose Preston-Jones--a New-Agey vegan who works as an alternative healer--sharing Flat 2 with her little dog, McPhee. Flat 3 is occupied by a fussy, middle-aged teacher (Marius Potter), who divines things from passages out of “Paradise Lost” in his spare time. A married couple by the name of Constantine--Michael a doctor and Katie a writer--occupy Flat 4. Flat 5 is home to the three silly young college girls--Noor Lateef, a pretty Indian girl; Sophie Longwich, a sort of plain, mousy girl; and the one he calls “the fat girl” (because she’s a stone or so over his “ideal”), Molly Flint. The final apartment--Flat 6--is inhabited by perhaps the most intriguing (or at least, the strangest) of his fellow Litchfield House residents--Ms. Olwen Curtis, a retired woman whose answer to every question is “Not really,” and who stumbles around 24/7, reeking of gin or vodka.
Next to and across from Litchfield House, Stuart invites couples Jock and Kathy Pember, and Ken Lee and Moira Jones, as well as Duncan Yeardon, an elderly man puttering around by himself in a three-story house. Next-door to Duncan is an Asian family about which Stuart isn’t entirely certain how or if to invite, as there seems to be an older man and a handful of young adults, possibly (or not) related. (One of the females is, however, of especial interest to him--a beautiful young woman whom Stuart thinks may actually be his equal in the good-looks department.) He also toys with the idea of inviting the coarse building porter (Wally Scurlock) and his blowzy wife, but concludes that that really isn’t necessary.
Other main characters (though not on Stuart's guest list) include Freddy Livorno (the cuckolded chap married to Stuart’s mistress), some local shop owners, a couple of the college girls’ boyfriends, and Stuart’s mother (a doting woman now growing weary of her beautiful son's indolent ways).
And then, there is us to consider, for we readers have a role to play, too; we're virtual voyeurs, gleaning whatever tidbits we can from the biased observations made by each character... separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were, then trying to ascertain wherein the true nature of each character actually lies (since we're the only ones with access to everyone’s perceptions and actions).
But back to the party (which is, in truth, but a very small portion of the story). It is actually the preparations for the party--but even more so, the aftermath of what happens during that one fateful night--which set the tone and propel the action for the rest of this twisted tale of randomly-intersecting lives. [No, I really can't tell you what happens at the party, and I certainly can't tell you what happens after that. Suffice it so say that it's the culmination of several perfectly-ordinary acts--combined with a few rather-more-extraordinary ones--which will have you waiting with baited breath for each of the many axes to fall.]
One thing's for certain; following Stuart’s bash, the neighborhood will never be quite the same again.
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As is generally the case with a work penned by the über-prolific Ruth Rendell (who also writes as Barbara Vine), the devil is in the smallest of details in Tigerlily’s Orchids... and only becomes apparent once the (seemingly) most-insignificant of them are considered and put into proper context. And what a lot of details there are, here, as we flit from one neighbor to the next, spying on the actions and thoughts of each. (Sound exhausting? Don't worry, it's not. In fact, it’s just the opposite--wonderfully exhilarating, waiting and watching from the relative safety of the sidelines as things inevitably take their course.) There's genuine pathos--most notably in the plight of Olwen Curtis, whose goal is to (literally) drink herself to death. There's a fair amount of humor, too, as Rendell repeatedly skewers how each character sees him-/herself.
Besides offering these deliciously-naughty peeks into such outwardly-normal(ish) lives, Rendell also paints a poignant picture of a modern neighborhood trying to survive, illustrating how the realities of tough economic times have such profound impacts on the lives of residents and business owners alike.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 Mousies!