When I want to read something light, I re-read one of two authors who have been favorites for years. One of them is Mary Stewart, best known for her Merlin trilogy, which is excellent. However, it is her romantic suspense novels written from the 1950’s through the 70’s that I love to read. She continued writing into the 90’s until she was 85 years old, but her best romantic suspense work is from this earlier period.
Most of Stewart’s novels take place in exotic locales and feature appealing, literate heroines with a habit of quoting poetry. I am not normally a romance reader, although I like a good romantic suspense novel. Stewart’s books are well written, her characters intelligent and sympathetic, and her stories so well plotted that I go back to them again and again. Her descriptions of the settings are so vivid that on my travels I have caught myself looking out for places she has written about, although sadly, most of them no longer much resemble the out-of-the way places she described.
For this review, I’ve picked one of my favorite Mary Stewart novels, This Rough Magic. Lucy Waring is an actress on vacation in Corfu visiting her pregnant sister, Phyllida Forli. The Forlis are a wealthy Italian banking family who own three houses around a private bay on the island. The big gothic main house is occupied by a tenant about whom Phyllida is teasingly secretive. The other house is rented by a photographer named Godfrey Manning, who has been spending some of his time photographing Spiro, the teenage twin brother of the Forli’s housekeeper’s daughter, Miranda, swimming with a dolphin.
Lucy soon meets one of the tenants of the main house, a man who thinks she is a trespasser and tries to throw her off the property. But she is then welcomed to the house by the other occupant, the famous Shakespearean actor Julian Gale, in retirement since the tragic death of his wife and daughter. He entertains her with his theory that Corfu is the setting for The Tempest, a theory he has also related to Miranda and Spiro, as he is their godfather. The other man is Julian’s son, Max, a well-known composer. Although Julian is charming, Max is gruff and unwelcoming, and Lucy can tell something is wrong with the Gales. Later, at the Forli’s house, Lucy meets Godfrey Manning, a dashing man who is ready to admire her.
Lucy’s island idyll is broken in one harrowing day. First, when she is swimming in the bay with the dolphin, someone fires a gun at the animal, and the bullet almost hits Lucy. After a big argument with Max, whom she suspects of doing the shooting, she goes back to the Forli house to find Phyllida in distress. Godfrey has just returned from a shipboard night photography expedition to report that Spiro fell overboard and drowned. Lucy also thinks that Max met with one of the island’s smugglers, who is later found dead. Smuggling is rife between Corfu and Albania, still at that time very isolated and located across a narrow body of water from the island.
Suddenly there is a lot going on in this island paradise, and Lucy finds herself thrown into danger when Miranda confides that she has found Prospero’s books, which of course he dumped in a lake at the end of The Tempest. Loaded with atmosphere and truly gripping, This Rough Magic is a great novel to read when you just want to relax.