Ivor Tesham is a handsome, single, young member of Parliament whose political star is on the rise. When he meets a woman in a chance encounter–a beautiful, leggy, married woman named Hebe–the two become lovers obsessed with their trysts, spiced up by what the newspapers like to call “adventure sex.”
It’s the dress-up and role-play that inspire Ivor to create a surprise birthday present for his beloved that involves a curbside kidnapping. It’s all intended as mock-dangerous foreplay, but then things take a dark turn.
After things go horribly wrong, Ivor begins to receive anonymous letters that reveal astonishingly speci?c details about the affair and its aftermath. Somehow he must keep his role from being uncovered–and his political future from being destroyed by scandal.
Like a heretic on the inquisitor’s rack, Ivor is not to be spared the exquisitely slow and tortuous unfolding of events, as hints, nuances, and small revelations lay his darkest secrets hideously bare for all the world to see.
The Birthday Present is a deft, insightful, and compulsively readable exploration of obsessive desire–and the dark twists of fate that can shake the lives of even those most insulated by privilege, sophistication, and power.
From the Hardcover edition.
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It’s late spring of 1990 and a love affair is flourishing: between Ivor Tesham, a thirty-three year old rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, and Hebe Furnal, a stunning North London housewife stuck in a dull marriage. What excitement Hebe lacks at home, however, is amply compensated for by the well-bred and intensely attractive Tesham – an ardent womanizer and ambitious politican. On the eve of her twenty-eighth birthday, Tesham decides to give Hebe a present to remember: something far more memorable than, say, the costly string of pearls he’s already lavished upon her. Involving a fashionable new practice known as ‘adventure sex’, a man arranges for his unsuspecting but otherwise willing girlfriend to be snatched from the street, bound and gagged, and delivered to him at a mutually agreed venue ... Set amidst an age of IRA bombings, the first Gulf War, and sleazy politics, The Birthday Present is the gripping story of a fall from grace, and of a man who carries within him all the hypocrisy, greed and self-obsession of a troubled era.Review:
Those who feel that Ruth Rendell's best writing is done under her Barbara Vine nom-de-plume (and there are many who do) will need little persuasion to pick up The Birthday Present. But the fact that this is something of a departure for the author -- under either of her names -- may give them pause.
Margaret Thatcher's days as prime minister are over, and the John Major era of the Conservative party is about to begin. The media is full of tales of sleaze and corruption, and it is not a good time to be a Tory Member of Parliament. However, Ivor Tesham is sanguine: money is no object to him; he is charismatic and attractive, and he is in the middle of a passionate affair. The fly in the ointment is the fact that this is an adulterous relationship: not a happy state of affairs when PM John Major has made 'Back to Basics' morality and 'Victorian Values' the new yardsticks for his variously philandering and kickback-taking MPs. Ivor and his lover -- the beautiful Hebe Furnal -- share a particular erotic predilection; a taste for bondage and the more risky extremes of sexuality. Ivor arranges for a mock kidnapping in line with the couple's games, but, needless to say (this is a Barbara Vine novel, after all), things quickly go pear-shaped, and Igor find that everything he holds dear is about to be stripped away from him.
As this synopsis suggests, Rendell is moving into even more incendiary territory than she has traversed before, and the political element makes the experiment even more piquant. Those who know Rendell's association with the Labour Party (she is a working peer) might assume that a novel which rekindles all the sleaze of the last Tory government (particularly when the latest incarnation of the party is riding high in the polls) is a political act, but Rendell/Vine is far too sophisticated a writer to fall into that trap. In fact, this is one of the most ingenious and disturbing books. As often before with her, the stake for the central character could not be higher and it is impossible not to be drawn into the plight of the beleaguered Ivor (not for the first time, we are reminded of the author’s distinguished American predecessor Patricia Highsmith). The Birthday Present,disturbing as it is, will sit happily on your shelves alongside all the other Barbara Vine titles -- and if you don't possess them, why not? --Barry Forshaw
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