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The Birthday Present: A Novel Hardcover – March 10, 2009

45 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookmarks Magazine

In her newest Barbara Vine novel, Rendell has crafted a subtly sordid tale studded with imaginative plot twists and black humor. Though she reveals Tesham’s eventual downfall within the first few pages, Rendell builds a great deal of tension into her complex, tightly constructed plot, and her descriptions of Tesham’s sexual adventures, though accurate, are never lurid. Interestingly, most British critics panned the novel—a possible reaction to the liberal Rendell’s political leanings or a jaded familiarity with the national events framing the plot. However, American critics praised The Birthday Present, calling it “one of [Rendell’s] best literary excursions” to date (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). Readers in search of a smart, fast-paced thriller by an expert storyteller will appreciate Vine’s latest.
Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC

From Booklist

Vine, the pen name of Ruth Rendell (whose Reginald Wexford mysteries are among the best of contemporary British procedurals), turns in another involving stand-alone that explores the twists and turns of human behavior. Flipping between the perspectives of two unacquainted narrators, she chronicles the rise and fall of a self-indulgent British politician, whose career collapses, in part, because of a tragic stroke of bad luck. Ivor Tesham, a rising star in John Major’s liberal party, is shocked when he learns about the death of his mistress, killed in a car accident while on her way to him, bound and blindfolded, as the willing victim of a faux kidnapping meant to set the stage for a birthday gift of adventurous sex. Fearing public censure, Tesham stays quiet, despite the advice from his sister and brother-in-law. As might be expected, his selfish decision gradually ripples outward, leading to unexpected consequences not only for himself but also for the other vicitims of the accident—especially the woman’s troubled friend. As with her other psychological thrillers, Vine writes with calm elegance, slowly unravelling the story while constructing a strong sense of place, politics, and social class to support her players. It’s the very ordinariness of her characters and the randomness of their lives that create the drama here. --Stephanie Zvirin

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; First Edition edition (March 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307451984
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307451989
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,558,694 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By E. Bukowsky HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 15, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Writing as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell's "The Birthday Present" is an extended flashback in which two narrators look back at a sordid incident and its tragic aftermath. Ivor Tesham, a handsome and ambitious graduate of Eton and Oxford, becomes a Tory MP at thirty-one and seems destined for political stardom. However, his self-centeredness and desire for sexual excitement propel him to take foolish risks, and when things go terribly wrong, he becomes an emotional wreck. Ivor's cautionary tale is narrated by Rob, an accountant and Ivor's staid brother-in-law, and Jane Atherton, the dowdy and resentful best friend of Ivor's married mistress, a beautiful twenty-seven year old named Hebe Furnal who shares her lover's kinky tastes.

Rob and his wife, Iris, Ivor's sister, serve as a mini-Greek chorus. Although they bear some blame for enabling Ivor to carry out an imprudent scheme, no one could have foreseen how fate would turn a sick charade into a catastrophe. Instead of presenting the facts in a linear manner, Rendell allows Rob and Jane to report their version of events with their biases intact, forcing us to figure out who did what to whom and why. Rendell uses black humor and complex plot machinations to shine a spotlight on human frailties, with an emphasis on obsession, greed, and egotism. Ivor jeopardizes his career and reputation for the sake of a tawdry adventure; Hebe puts her marriage and her son's welfare at risk to carry on a clandestine liaison with an attractive and wealthy man. Jane Atherton is a homely and dejected woman, one of a "faceless tribe" who "go to bed alone and get up alone." She is a perpetual victim whose low-paying job, manipulative and nagging mother, and solitary existence fill her with bitterness and self-pity.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By sb-lynn TOP 500 REVIEWER on March 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I do not think this is Barbara Vine/ Ruth Rendell's best book, and I have read all of them. But I am giving this 5 stars, because even a flawed work from her is usually far better than most mystery suspense novels out there. This is no exception, and it is a fast-paced, suspense-filled story.

Brief summary, no spoilers:

The setting is London, in the early 1990s, just at the end of Margaret Thatcher's reign as Prime Minister. The story tells the tale of Ivor Tesham, a young member of Parliament who had ambitions to rise much higher. He is having an affair with a married woman, and decides to plan a "surprise" for her birthday.

Needless to say, it goes wrong. And that starts a series of events that results in the destruction of many lives.

One of the things I love about any Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell novel is that you know you are in for a page-turner, and this book is no exception. She is also the best author I've ever read in describing damaged, or eccentric characters, or those with obsessive compulsions, delusions, or mental defect of all sorts. And again, this novel doesn't disappoint in that regard.

So my problems with the story? Without giving away any spoilers - I was riveted throughout most of the story, and I thought that the sense of impending doom and disaster was palpable. It seemed like we were all set up for a spectacular finish - and indeed, this author has come up with some of the great finales and twists of all time.

But not here, in my opinion. Saying this, I still recommend this book. It is a pager-turner, and has the great classic bizarre cast of Barbara Vine characters. If you are in any kind of a reading slump, this is as good as any of her books to get you going again.

So, recommended.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By LibraryLady on May 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I've been a fan of Barbara Vine for years, ordering her books from so I can get them as soon as they come out rather than waiting until they're released in the U.S. For some reason, I didn't on "The Birthday Present," and I am glad.

Usually Vine writes multi-layered, multi-faceted intense psychological narratives that take place in one time but explore a past history. Her protagonists are flawed, often deeply, but the reader cannot help either liking them or at least being sympathetic towards them. Not in this novel. For one thing, the chapters shift back and forth between the narrative of Rob Delgado, an amoral, spineless observer, and the diary of Jane, an increasingly-disturbed young woman. However, there is nothing to mark (other than chapter breaks) that the narrators are switching back and forth so it takes several sentences of each chapter to figure out who is talking. How hard would it have been to add a label "excerpt from Jane's diary" to her portions? In addition, the main character, Ivor, is despicable. How this unfaithful, caddish, shallow snob can get women to love him so deeply is an inexplicable mystery. He does not have one redeemable quality.

In previous Vine books, the suspense builds to a very satisfying denouement--again, not in this book. She reveals her hand basically at the beginning of the book, and that's all there is. I enjoy the Ruth Rendell/Wexford novels, but the Ruth Rendell standalones often leave me cold. That is what this Barbara Vine novel reminded me of--particularly the point of view told from an extremely unreliable narrator. It's disappointing that for a number of reviewers here, this was their first Vine novel. I highly recommend many of her previous offerings: A Dark-Adapted Eye (perfection!), House of Stairs, The Brimstone Wedding, The Blood Doctor, The Minotaur, or Anna's Book. Try any of those, and you'll have a much more satisfactory Barbara Vine experience than "The Birthday Present."
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