The Saint Zita Society is an upstairs/downstairs-type story about the servants who live in Hexam Place, London. The eponymous society is a loosely organized servant union that serves as little more than a chance for the servants to get together and talk. Ruth Rendell is primarily known as a crime writer, and a crime is indeed committed midway through the book. However, the focus of the story is on the soap opera-like relationships between the residents of the building.
I love the upstairs/downstairs genre, and Rendell’s cast of colourful characters easily suck the reader into a world of sex, scandal and secrets. My personal favourite was Thea, who declares at the first meeting of the Saint Zita Society:
“I am not a servant.” Thea helped herself to a handful of mixed nuts. “You may be but I’m not.”
“What are you then?” said Beacon.
“I don’t know. I just do little jobs for Damian and Roland. You want to remember I’ve got a degree.” [p. 2]
The sad reality is that Thea does these little jobs for free and that Damian and Roland, her landlords, take advantage of her. She is acutely aware that while they found her useful, they didn’t particularly like her. They didn’t even care enough to ask what she did for a living (teaching IT and word processing part-time) and “were only nice to her when they wanted to ask a favour or had a reason to be particularly cheerful.” [pp. 36 – 37]
I love the glimpse into the perceived social hierarchy even within the “downstairs” world, and I found Thea’s desire to connect with her “upstairs” world landlords on an equal footing tragic.
I’m a major fan of crime fiction, but to be honest, I would have preferred it if Rendell hadn’t included the crime element at all, nor the menacing presence of a character who thinks a god speaks to him over his mobile phone. Rendell had created such a rich world with her characters that I wanted to spend more time exploring their lives, without (and this feels very odd for me to say) being distracted by the crime angle.
I also wanted the Saint Zita Society to play a larger role in the story. Admittedly, this may just be a personal preference on my part rather than a commentary on the quality of the storytelling, but given the major social gap between the servants and their bosses, I would have loved to see how the bosses would have reacted to the servants actually taking a stand. Rendell does touch on some injustices, such as Thea’s invisibility to her landlords and the pressure exerted upon a young valet to sleep with his boss’s wife, even though he is really interested in the daughter. However, she pulls short of focusing on the social commentary, and personally, I think that would have made the novel more interesting.
Finally, I really, absolutely hated the ending. To be fair, this is an emotional reaction more than an objective assessment of the quality of the ending. I don’t know if it felt as rushed and unnecessary to other readers as it did to me, but in any case, I was pissed off at what Rendell did with one of the characters. So if the author was attempting to elicit an emotional response, she succeeded. Still, I hated it.
Overall, Saint Zita is a good book. The characters were engaging, and the multiple story lines fascinating. Still, even without taking into account the ending, I wish Rendell could have done much more with it.
Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.