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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Sight for Sore Eyes

Ruth Rendell

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To purchase A Sight for Sore Eyes

Title: A Sight for Sore Eyes
Author: Ruth Rendell
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 378 pages
Availability: A Sight for Sore Eyes - US
A Sight for Sore Eyes - UK
A Sight for Sore Eyes - Canada
Sage comme une image - France
Der Sonderling - Deutschland
Deseo criminal - España
  • A Sight for Sore Eyes was filmed in 2003, originally as Inquiétudes, directed by Gilles Bourdos

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Our Assessment:

B+ : extreme but well-drawn characters; a compelling thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 12/9/1998 Patrick Gale
Entertainment Weekly B+ 23/4/1999 Daneet Steffens
The Independent . 22/8/1998 Frances Fyfield
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/4/1999 Marilyn Stasio
Sunday Times . 23/8/1998 Anita Brookner
The Times A 29/8/1998 Marcel Berlins
TLS . 25/9/1998 Natasha Cooper
The Washington Post A 2/5/1999 Maureen Corrigan

  Review Consensus:

  Dark; most quite impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is a bitchy humour to the nastiness and a denouement that would have pleased Poe." - Patrick Gale, Daily Telegraph

  • "Despite its excellent later plot, the neat construction and the powerful images, it remains a wandering narrative about universally dislikeable people, clinically described and dissected and then manipulated into playing a long, slow game. (...) All of this would work if there were the morality of Inspector Wexford guiding it; some superstructure taking the narrative beyond these one- dimensional, stricken lives." - Frances Fyfield, The Independent

  • "(A) flawless piece of craftsmanship. (...) Spare and unforgiving, these incisive character studies illuminate the darker corners of Teddy's and Francine's family histories without dimming the originality of their bizarre lives." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The novel is particularly good in setting scenes that will prefigure what is to come. (...) A Sight for Sore Eyes is perhaps a little depthless, like Teddy and Francine, themselves, a little too out of touch with ordinary reality. In following the plot the reader may have to join in the general derangement but, as always, will do so with willingly, and, perhaps with certain reservations, to his or her entire satisfaction." - Anita Brookner, Sunday Times

  • "Rendell weaves the interlocking desires into a frightening tapestry of warped minds. The three principles and, no less, the house conspire to provide as chilling and as gripping as any Rendell has written to date." - Marcel Berlins, The Times

  • "The very plainness of her style, even in scenes of great drama adds to the tension and leaves the reader longing for some human warmth. (...) (P)erhaps worse than the rest is the subtext Rendell inserts into her novel, suggesting, by means of tiny repeating incidents, that chance plays as big a part in human disaster as anything else." - Natasha Cooper, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In A Sight for Sore Eyes, Rendell not only conjures up the perfect crime, but she does so by fashioning a plot that's perfectly circular. Rendell's characters end up where they began, except that the second time around, the true horror of their situations is revealed. (...) What's remarkable about A Sight for Sore Eyes is that, largely due to Rendell's gift for extracting the morbid out of the mundane, this ghastly artifice of a story seems utterly plausible. (...) Rendell's stunning new novel is not recommended for delicate readers, nor for anyone who's recently bought a house and foolishly waved away the formality of a house inspection." - Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Sight for Sore Eyes brings together damaged souls that are ill-prepared for life, with predictably unfortunate results. Rendell nicely lays the foundation of their damage, most notably with Teddy Brix, raised in a lower-class household of almost complete indifference. There is no violence, or even much anger towards or around him, but also no warmth, much less love; he receives neither affection nor even much attention; his parents, and the uncle, Keith, who lives with them, seem barely aware of his presence in the household. A craftsman neighbor, Alfred Chance, introduces him to a different world -- one where there is actual beauty, in things, and Teddy learns from him; he is a good student and eventually goes on to arts college, where he does quite well. However, never properly socialized, he remains very much an outsider; never having any close relationships, even with family members, he also does not play well with others -- and long does not have the slightest interest in any other individual; he intensely dislikes even having to touch someone, or being touched.
       When Teddy does finally find himself attracted to someone, it is with complete abandon. The young woman he falls for, and single-mindedly pursues, is Francine Hill, a beautiful young woman who suffered a great trauma in her childhood (which he does not learn of for quite a while): when she was seven she was alone with her mother in their house, sent to her room as punishment, and then overheard her mother being killed. She was mute for months afterwards, but eventually came out of her shell -- but then fell into the clutches of Julia Gregson, a child psychotherapist her father sent her to, who insinuated herself in the family -- eventually even marrying widower Richard -- and came to see herself as Francine's protector. Unfortunately, Julia herself proves to be a damaged soul -- and a damaging one, her overprotective watchful smothering of Francine not allowing the child to have even the semblance of a semi-normal childhood. The result is, as a friend of Francine's recognizes near the end of the story, more than a decade after the murder: "You've missed out on a hell of a lot of things, haven't you ?" (Julia soon retired from her professional career -- though it turns out her abandoning the field wasn't exactly voluntary; regrettably, when she then told Richard she was happy to leave it behind her and asking: "Would you think me melodramatic if I said I intend to devote my life to Francine ?" he didn't immediately distance himself (and especially his daughter) from this nutball.)
       The novel actually opens in the mid-1960s, with painter Simon Alpheton painting what would become a very famous portrait of pop star Marc Syre and his then-girlfriend Harriet Oxenholme in front of his London house, Orcadia Cottage, Marc and Harriet in Orcadia Place. Harriet winds up living there, marrying a wealthy man who picked her up and liked the idea of installing her there. It wasn't a great marriage ("Harriet was interested in very little except Harriet and her appearance"), and Harriet eventually began seeking out young men to have torrid little dalliances with -- which is how she comes across Teddy, ostensibly offering him a job but in fact just hoping to get the handsome young fellow into bed. Teddy is oblivious to the hints -- but very much taken by the house, familiar to him from the painting but also stunning in the beauty it contains.
       Teddy becomes obsessed, by Francine, and by Orcadia Cottage: "He wanted that house and the things in it". Unfortunately, he has very unrealistic ideas about how to achieve his ends -- and, of course, there are considerable obstacles in the first place. Regarding Francine, there's the over-protective step-mother who watches over her like a hawk, while as far as the house goes, well ... it belongs to someone else, and is occupied by them. But Teddy is focused: he knows what he wants. And while he's generally unable to look or plan far ahead -- though he does slowly get better at that, at least -- he's impulsive from the first.
       After the death of his parents Teddy learned that the house he grew up in wasn't, in fact theirs (and thus now his) but rather belongs to his uncle Keith; Teddy was redy to turf Keith out but in fact the tables are turned; Keith gives him a grace period, but does want him out. Teddy's solution to the problem isn't thoroughly thought through, but when the opportunity arises he takes advantage. And even if it seems like he isn't thinking too far ahead, the odd family circumstances -- Keith, too, lived an isolated existence, with no friends and essentially no visitors to the family home -- mean that Teddy doesn't immediately have too much to worry about: if Keith is suddenly not there, he's not missed by anyone.
       Francine is intrigued enough by Teddy to go out with him. Given her circumstances, any possibility of escaping to some normalcy is welcome, and Teddy is so determined that he can overcome Julia's hurdles -- something Francine feels largely powerless to do on her own. The problem is, of course, that Teddy offers nothing resembling normalcy; he also venerates Francine more like an object than a human being, taken by her great beauty -- and wanting to possess it -- but almost completely unable to be a partner in any sort of relationship. Briefly, Francine is willing to go along with it -- though she's sensible enough to realize that there's no future here. But given how seriously Teddy takes things, and how willing he is to forge ahead, regardless of what is in his way, things rather easily get out of hand.
       Teddy is unfamiliar with much about the modern world, and oblivious to a great deal (including social niceties). Never even having had a bank account, it takes him a while to figure out how an ATM card functions, for example, while he has his sights so set on Orcadia Cottage that it doesn't even occur to him that Harriet might have a husband who also lives there. But when he sets his mind to something, Teddy proves resourceful and determined -- so also with the home improvement projects (of various sorts) he undertakes, first in his family's home and then at Orcadia Cottage.
       People do die -- of natural causes, suicide, and at the hand of others. Central to the novel is a problem Teddy has with the disposal of some of these bodies, and though as the novel progresses Rendell stretches credulity ever more, things (and convenient (and inconvenient) coïncidences) proceed just plausibly enough to lead to the almost comic denouements where pretty much everyone gets what they have coming to them, for good and bad.
       A Sight for Sore Eyes is a tightly-woven novel, with, for example, the long unsolved murder of Francine's mother looming over much of the story in obvious ways -- in particular in how Julia insists in continuing to treat Francine as both victim and at personal risk because of it -- but with seemingly lesser threads of it turning out in fact to be of great significance as well (as the ultimate resolutions reveal). Everything falls a bit very neatly in place in the conclusion, but the set-up and performance are executed so well that it mostly can pass muster.
       It is the strong character-portraits that really impress, including secondary characters such as well-meaning but often weak Richard, trying to do what is best for Francine but not quite able to. Their misunderstandings, such as when Richard asks her whether she'd be okay with him marrying Julia, are heartbreaking in their well-intentioned haplessness. Rendell's characters are extreme -- Teddy, Julia, and Harriet, in particular -- but she presents them substantially enough that one can accept their outrageousness (with Rendell only very occasionally making excuses of sorts: "You'd have to be a -- a Balzac to imagine her", a friend of Francine's says about Julia). The novel does rely very much on how isolated and insulated from normal life so many of the characters are, living in bubbles of their own (even if, at least in the case of Francine, there's a constant struggle to break out of it), but this does serve more than just Rendell's (plot) purposes.
       A Sight for Sore Eyes is a very solid, well-crafted entertainment, and an agreeably creepy thriller.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 January 2020

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A Sight for Sore Eyes: Reviews: A Sight for Sore Eyes - the film: Ruth Rendell: Other books by Ruth Rendell under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British mystery writer Ruth Rendell lived 1930 to 2015.

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