Thursday, January 24, 2013

Have Romance, Will Travel

I thought I had tapped out the public library's stock of Mary Stewart books, but I found a newer edition of the first one I ever read, Nine Coaches Waiting, on the shelf the other day. When I was in the 7th or 8th grade, I discovered a copy of this book in the school library. I don't think it caught fire for me initially, but when I re-read it a few years later, I thought it was great. And then there were all of her other romance novels, 10 or so at that time, waiting to be explored. It was a booklover's feast.

I would call Ms. Stewart a writer of the old school. Considering her suitability for the shelves of a Catholic school library, you might think she'd be too tame for modern tastes, but you'd be wrong. She usually starts with a young, intelligent heroine, a romantic (sometimes exotic) locale, and a plot whose complications include at least one attractive, mysterious man. There's usually a sinister game afoot that entangles the young woman, and she's sometimes faced with choosing between two romantic rivals. Sometimes she makes the wrong choice, but she's always united in the end with the one she should have chosen, and everything turns out happily.

It sounds like pretty standard romance, but several things set Ms. Stewart apart: her vivid descriptions of locations as varied as a cliffside castle in Corfu, a chateau in the forests of Haute-Savoie, or a remote hotel on a Scottish island; her intelligent plotting; and her elegant prose. Her heroines inhabit a world similar to that of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, but theirs is less brooding. There may be bloodshed, villains, intrigue, wild hillside scrambles, and narrow escapes, but the heroine manages to overcome them all, occasionally losing a shoe or having to swim for her life. Some combination of common sense, humor, luck, and timely intervention (the rescue by dolphin in This Rough Magic, for example) sees her through.

I well remember the summer in my teens when I read one Mary Stewart book after another. Initially, I think it was the long-separated lovers in the The Ivy Tree that lured me in. There was something about their sad, moonlit reunion and Adam's scars that made an indelible impression on romantic 15-year-old me. The public library had nearly all of her books, and I finished them all in succession, eventually reading the well-known Merlin series as well. But it was the romances that created a glamorous, entertaining, and almost plausible world perfect for a lazy summer day in a small town without much else going on. Mary Stewart was as good as a passport.

Back then, I counted The Ivy Tree, Wildfire at Midnight, and Nine Coaches Waiting as my favorites. Over the last few years, I've sought out and re-read all of the Stewart books I can find from that summer. The author's special magic remains intact, but (unsurprisingly, I guess) my reactions to individual books have changed. This time around, I found The Ivy Tree too unbelievable, though I was perfectly able to swallow the deception the first time (once you know the secret to this book, I don't think you can read it the same way again). Sadder but wiser, I had to say goodbye to my former fascination with Annabel and Adam.

On the other hand, I was intrigued by My Brother Michael, a truly suspenseful tale set in Greece with one of Stewart's best male leads, the steady, reliable Simon Lester--a hero worth the name. Wildfire at Midnight was still enjoyable (if a bit more predictable on the second go), but This Rough Magic's delicious blend of lushly scenic Corfu, seaside villas, refugees from the London stage, literary allusions to The Tempest, counterfeiters, and a semi-magical dolphin was irresistible. I found Lucy's wild motorcycle ride on the hairpin turns to the Castello great fun and wondered how I could have forgotten such a wonderful episode.

Stewart often brings in bits of folklore and mythology that make her books more atmospheric; allusions to the Greek gods pop up in both My Brother Michael and This Rough Magic. Eventually, I'll track down The Moon-Spinners, which I recall liking but have little memory of. Since it's set on Crete, it will be fun to see if Stewart has any references to the labyrinth in the story; I look forward to finding out.

As for Nine Coaches Waiting, I'm still enjoying it on this, my third time around. I like the setting in the French countryside, the sophisticated dialogue, and the heroine's composure. I can also report that, just as these novels were perfect summertime reading all those years ago, they also translate into a cozy escape on winter afternoons at the coffeehouse.