Ruth Rendell's The Water's Lovely has a delightfully chilling premise. Twelve years before the book begins, Guy Rolland drowned in his bathtub. His stepdaughter Ismay, who was 15 at the time, is still haunted by it: the bleached body floating beneath the surface of the water. But more troubling is that she still doesn't know what role her younger sister Heather played in his death--Heather, who came down the stairs with her clothes wet, strangely calm, and led Ismay and her mother to the scene. Certainly, finding out what happened is impossible without confronting Heather, and confrontation, 12 years on, seems impossible. But if Heather killed once, mightn't she do so again?
In the here and now, Ismay and Heather live together in a flat downstairs from their aunt and mother, who's gone mad. The sisters and their aunt have relationships with various men, and the familial life of Heather's beau Edmund is explored at length. Indeed, his hypochondriacal mother's scheming acquaintance Marion comes to constitute a second thread to the story, and a threat, eventually, to Heather and Ismay.
Unfortunately, The Water's Lovely falls short of being a great book. In part this is because it loses focus, the author getting sidetracked by stories that are tangential to the plot. For much of the book our concern about Heather and what she may or may not have done is forgotten. Too much of the story, too, depends on coincidence. Finally, Rendell's final few pages are a sort of epilogue that comes out of nowhere and serves no purpose in the story. I can see what Rendell was trying to accomplish with the dramatic water-themed ending, but it doesn't work, and it leaves one feeling cheated.
-- Debra Hamel