A Sight for Sore Eyes

A Sight for Sore Eyes

3.9 17
by Ruth Rendell

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A Sight for Sore Eyes tells three stories, and for the longest time, the reader has no inkling of how they will come together. The first is a story of a little girl who has been scolded and sent to her room when her mother is brutally murdered; as Francine grows up, she is haunted by the experience, and it is years before she even speaks. Secondly, we become…  See more details below


A Sight for Sore Eyes tells three stories, and for the longest time, the reader has no inkling of how they will come together. The first is a story of a little girl who has been scolded and sent to her room when her mother is brutally murdered; as Francine grows up, she is haunted by the experience, and it is years before she even speaks. Secondly, we become privy to the life of a young man, Teddy, born of unthinking young parents, who grows up almost completely ignored. Free of societal mores, he becomes a sociopath, who eventually discovers that killing can be an effective way to get what he wants.  Thirdly, we meet Harriet, who from an early age has learned to use her beauty to make her way in the world. Bored by marriage to a wealthy, much older man, she scans the local newspapers for handymen to perform odd jobs around the house, including services in the bedroom.

When these three plots strands finally converge, the result is harrowing and unforgettable. A Sight for Sore Eyes is not just the work of a writer at the peak of her craft. It is an extraordinary story by a writer who, after 45 books, countless awards, and decades of international acclaim, is still getting better with every book.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
...[E]ver the master puppeteer, [Rendell] manipulates the interactions of a delicate but resourceful girl, a dangerously handsome boy, and a truly twisted stepmother.
In a conclusion horrific even by Rendell's grisly standards, the novelist reinforces the old axiom that vanity can be the death of you.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A pair of English teens, Teddy and Francine (who have grown up in dysfunctional families where common parenting faults are taken to extremes), meet and think that in each other they might find the beauty and freedom their own lives are lacking. Their troubled affair takes a while to get going, but once it does, Rendell's sharp characterizations and idiosyncratic descriptions are riveting. Though several deaths occur in the book, the only real mystery is that of the murder of Francine's mother, which Francine overheard (near the novel's beginning) when she was seven. Instead, Rendell (Road Rage, etc.) focuses more on how a few sedately bizarre ticks can build exponentially into insanity. Francine's stepmother, for example, progresses from simple worry about her stepdaughter's well-being to obsessive anxiety that borders on dementia. Rendell follows the story's principal objects as closely as she does its characters: the diamond and sapphire engagement ring that Teddy's indifferent mother finds in a public bathroom; the video case in which Francine's mother hid her love letters, the painting of two young lovers that shows Teddy the perfect beauty he would kill for. Rendell leaves nothing and no one unaccounted for, from the looks given by the neighbors over the fence to the idle thoughts that pass through characters' minds when they scan a room. A tour-de-force of psychological suspense, the novel culminates in a dramatic climax that's as unforgettable as what has preceded it. Mystery Guild main selection; Literary Guild featured alternate; simultaneous audio and large print editions; author tour. (Mar.)
Library Journal
With almost 50 books to her credit, Rendell has the knack of drawing readers in and holding them through the last page. In her latest psychological thriller she intertwines the stories of three somewhat damaged characters whose lives intersect in a most unfortunate way. First there is Francine, who witnessed her mother's murder at age seven and has been suffocated by an obsessively overprotective father and stepmother ever since. Teddy, born to indifferent parents, is now an adult with almost no social skills and a penchant for using murder to remove obstacles in his path. Finally, there is Harriet. Once beautiful and the subject of a famous painting, she is now bored, rich, and used to having affairs with repairmen in her quest for constant attention. The story is filled with tension, and Rendell is so adept at keeping the reader guessing that it's almost a relief to finish and be able to relax again. Recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/98.]--Caroline Mann, Univ. of Portland Lib., OR
Beth Amos
Edgar and Gold Dagger winner Ruth Rendell is well-known for her literary suspense tales featuring intricate plots, detailed characters, and flawless prose. Her latest effort, A Sight For Sore Eyes, is no exception, mixing murderous suspense with a horrifying, though at times bittersweet, coming-of-age story.

As a child, Francine Hill catches a brief glimpse of the man who, moments later, brutally murders her mother. By hiding inside a cupboard, Francine barely escapes being killed herself. The experience leaves her so badly wounded both emotionally and psychologically that she is totally mute for nine months. Through the gentle proddings of a well-meaning, self-made psychologist named Julia, Francine finally breaks through her silence and continues on with her life. But Julia has problems of her own, and when she ends up marrying Francine's father, Francine's life becomes a new kind of hell. By the time she reaches adolescence, Francine is ripe for rebellion and eager to escape from Julia's smothering and constant attentions.

That rebellion comes in the form of Teddy Brex, a handsome and talented young artist. After growing up with parents who rarely spoke to him and never touched him, Teddy is a barren emotional island who has never given or received simple human affection. He has learned to survive and fend for himself, doing whatever it takes, even if it means murder. When he finally meets Francine, she is truly a sight for his sore eyes, triggering emotions he didn't know he had. One look and he is instantly obsessed, though completely inept at handling his emotions. And Francine, desperate to escape the clutches of her overprotective stepmother, is too enthralled with the handsome young man's attentions and her newfound freedom to notice that things aren't quite what they seem.

Harriet Oxenholme spent her young adult years as the quintessential groupie for a handsome and famous rock star. But when the rock star finally tosses her out of his life and his home in a pique of disgust, Harriet is left picking up the shattered pieces of her life. She marries a wealthy older man after stealing him away from his wife. But even surrounded by wealth and comfort, Harriet finds that something is still missing in her life. In an effort to fill the void, she eventually sets herself up with a long line of young and willing handymen who can satisfy her sexual needs.

Rendell steers the reader along on the life journeys of these three very different people, leaving potholes of suspense along the way. As the paths of the three inevitably converge, they collide in a maelstrom of mayhem and destiny that will alter the lives of all those around them, leaving death in its wake. Rendell excels at peeling away the outer layers of her characters in a tantalizing striptease that reveals the hard cores and the soft hearts that lurk beneath. The end result is an exquisite peek into the minds of three troubled and damaged people whose needs, motivations, and wishes are all too common to us all. Rendell unfolds a harrowing tale backed with the rich physical detail and painful psychological insights that have become her hallmark. In the end, Rendell pays homage to one of the greatest mystery writers of all time by indulging in a bit of Edgar Allen Poetic justice that leaves the reader both appalled and satisfied.

In this cleverly crafted and superbly written tale, Rendell continues to explore the boundaries of her craft while strengthening her reputation as a literary talent and a great storyteller. Rendell's work has always stood out from that of the typical mystery crowd, but this latest effort is her best yet -- truly a sight for sore eyes.


Marilyn Stasio
...[A] flawless piece of craftsmanship....incisive character studies...
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Rendell's 46th (Road Rage, 1997, etc.) is a modern-day fairy tale - Margaret Yorke meets Fay Weldon - that shows the dark side of lovers' reckless pursuit of their objects of beauty. In long-ago happier days, Harriet Oxenholme was the lover of rock star Marc Syre. (In the novel's opening scene, their love is being immortalized in a famous painting; the next time we see them, two years and many pages later, he's throwing her bodily out of his house.) Now, faded and florid, she's reduced to searching the adverts for workmen who can come to her lovely house to fill the hours left empty by her loveless marriage. Beautiful woodworker Teddy Brex seems perfect for the role of her next lover. But Teddy, an unloved child whose scary lack of nurturing has led him to prize beautiful things above people, is less interested in Harriet than in her house - or in Francine Hill, a fairy princess with a secret that, if he only knew it, makes her perfect for Teddy's frighteningly abrupt style of courtship: as a child of six, she saw her mother open the door to the man who shot her to death and then came upstairs to Francine's hiding place. Surviving both that nightmare and the six months of muteness that followed, Francine has grown up under the pathologically controlling eye of her wicked stepmother Julia. Once she's set up her constellation of users and beautiful objects and shown how Harriet and Teddy can fulfill both functions at once, Rendell focuses on the doomed romance of murderous Teddy and haunted Francine with all the loving attention of a watchmaker regarding a ticking bomb. If the result lacks the energy and inevitability of the classic A Judgment in Stone, Rendell supplies aDickensian wealth of social detail that brings her beautiful people and their predators to startling life. (Mystery Guild main selection; Literary Guild featured aternate; author tour) .

From the Publisher
Ruth Rendell is...

"The best mystery writer in the English-speaking world."

"A phenomenon."
—Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Times Book Review

Winner of the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award

A Sight For Sore Eyes is...

"Harrowing...a flawless piece of craftsmanship."
The New York Times Book Review

The Washington Post Book World

"Bold, imaginative...spare and unforgiving."
The New York Times Book Review

"No one can match Rendell, chill for chill."
Chicago Tribune

"Unequivocally, the most brilliant mystery novelist of our time."
—Patricia Cornwell

"One of the most remarkable novelists of her generation."

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

They were to hold hands and look at one another. Deeply, into each other's eyes.

"It's not a sitting," she said. "It's a standing. Why can't I sit on his knee?"

He laughed. Everything she said amused or delighted him, everything about her captivated him from her dark red curly hair to her small white feet. The painter's instructions were that he should look at her as if in love and she at him as if enthralled. This was easy, this was to act naturally.

"Don't be silly, Harriet," said Simon Alpheton. "The very idea! Have you ever seen a painting by Rembrandt called The Jewish Bride?"

They hadn't. Simon described it to them as he began his preliminary sketch. "It's a very tender painting, it expresses the protective love of the man for his young submissive bride. They're obviously wealthy, they're very richly dressed, but you can see that they're sensitive, thoughtful people and they're in love."

"Like us. Rich and in love. Do we look like them?"

"Not in the least, and I don't think you'd want to. Ideas of beauty have changed."

"You could call it 'The Red-haired Bride.' "

"She's not your bride. I am going to call it 'Marc and Harriet in Orcadia Place'--what else? Now would you just stop talking for a bit, Marc?"

The house they stood in front of was described by those who knew about such things as a Georgian cottage and built of the kind of red bricks usually called mellow. But at this time of the year, midsummer, almost all the brickwork was hidden under a dense drapery of Virginia creeper, its leaves green, glossy and quivering in the light breeze. The whole surface of the house seemed to shiver and rustle, a vertical sea of green ruffled into wavelets by the wind.

Simon Alpheton was fond of walls, brick walls, flint walls, walls of wood and walls of stone. When he painted Come Hither outside the studio in Hanging Sword Alley he placed them against a concrete wall stuck all over with posters. As soon as he saw that Marc's house had a wall of living leaves he wanted also to paint that, with Marc and Harriet too, of course. The wall was a shining cascade in many shades of green, Marc was in a dark-blue suit, thin black tie and white shirt, and Harriet was all in red.

When the autumn came those leaves would turn the same color as her hair and her dress. Then they would gradually bleach to gold, to pale-yellow, fall and make a nuisance of themselves, filling the whole of that hedge-enclosed paved square and the entire backyard to a depth of several inches. The brickwork of the house would once more be revealed and the occasional, probably fake, bit of half-timbering. And in the spring of 1966 pale-green shoots would appear and the leafy cycle begin all over again. Simon thought about that as he drew leaves and hair and pleated silk.
"Don't do that," he said, as Marc reached forward to kiss Harriet, at the same time keeping hold of her hand and drawing her toward him. "Leave her alone for five minutes, can't you?"

"It's hard, man, it's hard."

"Tenderness is what I want to catch, not lust. Right?"

"My foot's gone to sleep," said Harriet. "Can we take a break, Simon?"

"Another five minutes. Don't think about your foot. Look at him and think about how much you love him."

She looked up at him and he looked down at her. He held her left hand in his right hand and their eyes met in a long gaze, and Simon Alpheton painted them, preserving them in the front garden of Orcadia Cottage, if not forever, for a very long time.

"Maybe I'll buy it," Harriet said later, looking with approval at the outline of her face and figure.

"What with?" Marc kissed her. His voice was gentle but his words were not. "You haven't any money."

When Simon Alpheton looked back to that day he thought that this was the beginning of the end, the worm in the bud showing its ugly face and writhing body among the flowers.

From the Hardcover edition.

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