Day 1124: The Ivy Tree

Cover for The Ivy TreeThe Ivy Tree is the first book I’m reading for R.I.P.

Mary Grey is a Canadian who has recently moved to Northumberland when she encounters Connor Winslow on the Roman Wall. Connor mistakes her for his long-lost cousin Annabelle and seems so angry to see her that Mary is frightened. She has some difficulty convincing him of his mistake.

Later, Connor’s half-sister Lisa locates Mary at her workplace in Newcastle. Connor and Lisa want Mary to impersonate Annabelle to help insure that Con will inherit the family farm, Whitescar, from his great-uncle Matthew, who is in poor health. If Mary as Annabelle inherits the farm, she will give it to Con in exchange for a small income that will save her from poverty.

Mary agrees to the job because it doesn’t seem as if it will hurt anyone. The only other interested party, Annabelle’s cousin Julie, views the farm simply as a holiday home. But the impersonation may turn out to be more difficult than anticiapted, for Annabelle had her secrets. And Mary has some, too.

I have long been a huge fan of Mary Stewart. Recently, I turned a friend on to her, and our discussions made me eager for a Stewart fix. The Ivy Tree is one of her best, particularly because, on reread, when you understand a secret of the plot, almost every scene in the novel turns out to have a double meaning.

Stewart is known for her convincing characters and her gorgeous descriptions of the setting. This novel is lush with descriptions of the plants and rural geography of Northumbria. It has a great plot and is truly suspenseful. If you have never read anything by Mary Stewart, I can’t recommend her highly enough, particularly those of her novels written before the 1980’s and her Merlin series.

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Day 717: Wildfire at Midnight

Cover for Wildfire at MidnightGianetta Drury is more sophisticated than the usual Mary Stewart heroine. She is a model and the ex-wife of a writer. It is 1953 and London is filling up for Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation when Gianetta’s boss suggests she take a holiday and get some rest. At the suggestion of her parents, she travels to a hotel on the Isle of Skye. (It is because of this book that I formed a life-long desire to see the Isle of Skye, as yet unmet.)

Gianetta has only been at the hotel a few hours when she makes two horrifying discoveries. One is that her ex-husband Nicholas is staying at the hotel. The other is that a local girl was recently murdered on one of the mountains, her body found across a bonfire like a sacrifice. She is said to have been meeting a man from the hotel.

All of the men currently staying at the hotel were there at the time of the murder except for movie star Marcia Maling’s chauffeur. Mr. and Mrs. Hartley Corrigan are vacationing with Alastair Braine, an old friend of Gianetta’s, here for the fishing. Colonel Cowdray-Simpson, also a fisherman, would seem to be too old to be a suspect. The famous mountaineer Rodney Beagle is there, climbing during the day and listening nightly to the radio broadcasts about Edmund Hillary’s expedition on Everest. And there is also a bouncy travel writer named Hubert Hay, who is researching his next book, Sauntering Through Skye. The handsome Roderick Grant is also a climber, and he quickly shows a liking for Gianetta. And then there’s Nicholas. Unfortunately, none of the men have an alibi for the murder.

Very soon two other visitors to the hotel have vanished, two women who went climbing on Garsven, the same mountain where the girl was found. They were seen from afar climbing with a third person, yet everyone else has returned to the hotel. To her horror, Gianetta is also aware of some information that seems to implicate Nicholas. She begins struggling with understanding where her loyalties lie.

Wildfire at Midnight is atmospheric and suspenseful. Stewart was a wonderful writer, known for her evocative descriptions of exotic locales and for her engaging characters. I come back to her books for light reading again and again.

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Day 525: Nine Coaches Waiting

Cover for Nine Coaches WaitingIn honor of Mary Stewart’s death earlier this month, here’s a review of another of her classic romantic suspense novels. She was really the master of this genre, writing literate novels with intelligent, plucky heroines and lots of excitement.

Linda Martin arrives in 1950’s France to take up a post as governess to a little boy, Comte Philippe de Valmy. Although Linda has been living in England since her poet father’s death, she has grasped this chance to return to France, where she was born. When the de Valmy’s stress that they want a governess who speaks only English, Linda decides to deceive them in a small way by pretending she does not speak French.

As Linda settles into her life at the Château Valmy, she occasionally feels some disquiet about events or comments she overhears. Philippe is an orphan whose parents died in an automobile accident. Until recently, he was living with his Uncle Thierry, an archaeologist, but Thierry went off to work on a dig. Philippe is a lovable boy, but he seems afraid of his aunt and uncle. Léon de Valmy is confined to a wheel chair. He was once a member of the international social scene, but since his polo accident he has focused his activities on the estate, which belongs by right to Philippe. Although he is a charismatic personality and Linda likes him, she thinks he treats Philippe with undue strictness. His wife Héloïse is beautiful but cool.

Linda has a dramatic meeting with Raoul, the de Valmy’s handsome and worldly son. He seems disposed to admire her, but she cannot believe he is serious. Despite herself, though, she finds herself falling in love.

A couple of disturbing near-accidents happen to Philippe. During a walk in the woods, he is almost shot, apparently by a careless hunter. Later, Linda notices a weakness in the railing of Philippe’s balcony and shoves something across it. This action keeps him from falling to his death when he runs out to the balcony to see who is arriving. Soon she becomes afraid that someone is trying to kill the little boy she has been hired to protect.

Photo of Mary Stewart
Mary Stewart

Stewart knows how to set a scene and build suspense. She is also an extremely good writer who is able to make you care about her characters. Because of its setting in the château, this is one of the more gothic of her suspense novels. It is also one of the most romantic. Nine Coaches Waiting is the first Stewart novel I read, and it has remained one of my favorites.

Day 522: Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)

Cover for VeraBefore I start on my review of Véra, I just wanted to comment on the death of Mary Stewart, which I just heard about. I have been reading and re-reading Mary Stewart’s books since I was a young girl. Not only did she write some of the best romantic suspense stories ever, but she also wrote a much-praised historical-fantasy series about Merlin. Her works were well grounded in their settings and beautifully evoked places (some of which we will never see again, such as 60’s Damascus and Beirut). To my surprise, my post about her book This Rough Magic continues to be one of the most visited on my site. We are going to miss Mary Stewart. I have re-read Stewart’s books so many times that I can write reviews of them from memory. I’ll post another one soon.

***

I’ve read two biographies now by Stacy Schiff, and both of them are about elusive women. Cleopatra was elusive because most of the information about her life is available only from prejudiced sources. Véra Evseevna Nabokov was elusive because she wanted to be.

Véra considered Nabokov to be a genius and his work to be of sole importance. She never publicly acknowledged her own contribution to it. Even the subtitle of this biography reflects the way she presented herself, always as Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov.

I don’t know a lot about Nabokov. I have read only one of his books, Lolita, but I found it astounding. Despite my dislike of the subject matter, reading it was an amazing experience, and I found the use of language astonishingly beautiful. But you do not need to be familiar with Nabokov’s oeuvre to find this biography, which won the Pulitzer, fascinating.

The Nabokovs had a truly collaborative relationship even though they never publicly acknowledged it. Although Véra denied helping him write, he often called her his first reader. Visitors heard her tell him to reword phrases or even remark, “You can’t say that!” For years, she typed up his manuscripts from his note cards or his dictation. She oversaw the translations of his work into different languages, even laboriously correcting them in the several languages she spoke. She was exacting about the use of words. She took care of all Nabokov’s correspondence, even to friends and family, as well as his business and financial affairs. She was the gatekeeper for interviews and visitors. She also drove him everywhere (and carried the luggage). Her entire married life was dedicated to providing him time and peace to write.

In areas even more directly affecting the success of his literary career, it was at Véra’s suggestion that Nabokov begin to write fiction in addition to poetry. Once the Nabokovs emigrated to America, Véra convinced Vladimir to begin writing in English. She pulled the manuscript of Lolita out of the fire on three different occasions, and it became his most famous work. Students taking his classes at Cornell were bemused by his “assistant,” who provided quotations or page references just when he needed them, drew complex diagrams on the blackboard, and erased it after class. Véra also taught his literature and language classes for him on many occasions and was acknowledged as a better, more systematic Russian language teacher than her husband.

Véra never seemed to resent this role she had taken on; she fostered it. But she was in no sense a nonentity. In correspondence she was much more direct than her husband. Although they tended to share correspondence—he would start a letter, perhaps; she would finish it; he would sign it—she was always left to impart the hard news—the refusal of contracts, the dictation of terms, the correction of translations. Many people believed that she was a dragon who was screening Nabokov’s mail or keeping people away from him, but she was doing what he wanted.

The couple was seldom seen apart. Although Nabokov had an affair early in their marriage and liked to flirt with women, he dedicated almost all his books to Véra. They had an extraordinary marriage, and this is an extraordinary, surprisingly entertaining book.

Day 382: Touch Not the Cat

Cover for Touch Not the CatI was surprised by how many people were interested in my review of Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, so I decided to post a review of another Stewart novel, one of my favorites of her later romantic suspense novels, about family secrets, published in 1976. Touch Not the Cat is the only Stewart book, aside from her Merlin novels, that includes a touch of the supernatural.

Bryony Ashley is awakened on Madeira, where she works, by a message from her father. She has always had a telepathic link with one of her cousins—she doesn’t know which one—but he unexpectedly relays a garbled message from her father. So, she is not altogether surprised when she learns that her father has been severely injured after a hit and run accident. Before she can go to him, he dies, leaving behind a warning of danger. She returns to England to settle his estate.

Bryony’s family owns Ashley Court, an ancient stately home that the family has not been able to afford for some time. It is entailed to her cousin Howard and after him to his sons, her identical twin cousins Emory and James.  Bryony has always assumed that her “lover,” as she calls her telepathic friend, is one of these two cousins, since telepathy is said to run in her family and she was never very close to her third cousin, Francis.

The only part of the estate that passes to Bryony is the small cottage where she lives on a patch of land surrounded by a system of canals. The rest of Ashley Court is currently being rented by a rich American family, the Underhills.

Almost as soon as Bryony gets home, odd things begin happening. Someone steals an old book of records from the church. She goes on the tour of Ashley Court and notices that small, valuable objects of art are missing, including some of her own possessions. Then Emory and James arrive on the scene and immediately begin pressuring her to wind up the estate affairs and sell her own property to them.

As she pokes around in the library, Bryony figures out that her father was worried about something he discovered about the ancient property and is reluctant to sell it until she determines just what his discovery was. Calmly helping around the estate is her childhood friend, Rob Granger. It was to Mrs. Granger and her son that Bryony always turned in times of trouble as a child, so she confides some of her concerns to him.

Interspersed with Bryony’s story are a few paragraphs in each chapter from the point of view of an ancestor, the black sheep of the family, Nick Ashley. It was Nick’s father who selected the puzzling family motto “Touch not the cat, but [without] a glove” (an actual motto of the Clan MacPherson). Eventually, the two stories converge to reveal the secrets of the house and the reason for Bryony’s father’s death.

From a more innocent time, Mary Stewart’s novels are among those I turn to periodically for a bit of light reading, and I find them unfailingly entertaining. As usual with Stewart, her heroine is appealing and she slowly builds a feeling of suspense. Her plotting in this novel is complicated and the mystery engrossing. Although we are accustomed these days to narratives that move back and forth between two periods of time, this was a more unusual technique for the 1970’s.

Day 144: This Rough Magic

Cover for This Rough MagicBest Book of the Week!

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.