(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

After the death of her mother, anorexic sixteen-year-old Elvira, repulsed by her physical self, sinks into the gloomy comforts of Gothic literature. When her father, whom she adores with an unhealthy obsession, plans to marry again, Elvira resolves to see that the match never takes place--no matter what. Is Elvira really responsible for what happens next? Or is another force at work, involving her younger sister and their supposedly haunted fifteenth century house?

The only thing Elvira knows for certain is that she did not kill her mother. Spinny, her sister, seems to be a normal teenager--plump, rosy-cheeked, and very interested in boys -- except that Spinny keeps seeing the ghosts which are reputed to haunt their house, ghosts that no one else sees. Luke, father to Spinny and Elvira, in holy orders and a teacher at the university, may not be the perfect and loving parent/scholar that Elvira believes him to be.

It is difficult to critique this short novel without giving the ending away, but that would be criminal, because this work is reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe at his best; the setting is contemporary but the nightmare that unfolds is universal. The believability of Rendell’s characters only adds to the chills; at no time does she deliberately deceive the reader. The plot, however, is far from transparent, and Rendell does provide an ironic distraction of sufficient plausibility and power to grip the reader and focus attention away from the true horror. The real madness grows even as the reader overlooks it.

Rendell has been praised for her remarkable plot lines, in which only little things happen for many pages, until the sum of them suddenly, sometimes horrifyingly, dawns upon the unwary reader. HEARTSTONES has just such a plot, and it is about as perfect as possible. Coupled with an understated style and a thorough understanding of abnormal psychology, the effect is riveting.