In this astute character study, Rendell intuits the lives of several characters in Londonís Portobello district, each subtlety connected by geography, friends and work. These people are mostly selfish, deceitful and
not particularly likable, yet Rendellís sardonic take on their lives always makes for compelling reading. In this place where old meets new, where landed gentry live aside burglars, pickpockets and thieves, Portobello Road meanders and curves gracefully along, constantly cosmopolitan, lively and energetic.
Rendell introduces salubrious gallery owner Eugene Wren, who as the novel opens is battling a series of addictions. Living in a rarefied section of the neighborhood, Eugene has reached a place and a time in his life where heís ready to marry his girlfriend, the "ample bosomedĒ general practitioner Ella Cotswold. Eugene loves Ella and could hardly imagine being parted from her. But, with his impending nuptials coming up, Eugene has begun to crave
- albeit clandestinely - for a new type of sugar-free sweet. Ella would never approve. She's merrily oblivious to Eugene as he begins to buy the delectable sweets behind her back and store them in various areas around his lovely house.
While Eugene and Ella sort through their various romantic issues, local layabout Lance Platt pines for his girlfriend, Gemma. Gemma recently threw him out of her flat after he punched her in the face. As depression settles on him like a heavy black bag hanging from his shoulders, Lance torments himself by passing Gemmaís balcony on Talbot Road and staring up at her with a heavy heart. He just canít face going back to the rat-infested dump he shares with Uncle Gib, a tall, emaciated, chain-smoking
old man with a Voltairean face who proselytizes against sexual immorality and seems content to live in untouched squalor.
Fed up with Uncle Gib's lifestyle, Lance sees opportunity to collect some real money from Arnold Wren.
Itís the "rich pickings" of Wrenís place that really attract Lance: ďpeople like Wren so rich comfortable and worry-free, who never have a problem finding a thousand pounds.Ē
The rainy, turbid summer finally arrives, threatening to wash out the salubrious Chepstow villas,
and Lanceís penchant for petty thievery sets off a series of events that lead to a devastating house fire
in which an innocent man is killed.
Eccentricity is the norm in this area of London; habit and decency mix with sorrow, hope, forgiveness and despair. Like a vast sociological tourist guide to Portobello,
Rendell's florid prose brings Pembridge Road, Westbourne Grove, even the genteel boutiques and the gracious houses of Notting Hill vividly
to life. Like a thread that attaches to itself, a selection of bric-a-brac lives swirl and tumble, playing out amid the swarms of people heading toward Saturdayís Portobello Market, where you can find junk and produce of every possible provenance and description.
With a real British sense of class, a quivering sense of desperation renders most of Rendellís characters paralyzed
either by their insecurities or by their addictions, all thrust together regardless of their economic status or assumed snobbery. Lance remains the lovable troublemaker as tries desperately to reconnect with Gemma. Ella is the compassionate doctor, attentive to Joel Roseman, who talks of imaginary friends while locked up in his dreadful, dark flat. Most foolish is Eugene with his angst, protracted searches for his beloved sweets, perpetual obsessions with Ella and silent desperation to hold onto her special brand of love at whatever the cost.