This summer, I read two enjoyable Mary Stewart novels:
Madam, Will You Talk?, Mary Stewart
First published 1955
Charity Selborne, a young WWII widow, is enjoying a vacation in the South of France with her friend Louise. At their hotel, she soon makes the acquaintance of a lonely young boy named David, who is traveling with his dog and his glamorous stepmother. Since Louise would rather relax than explore, Charity takes David with her on some sight-seeing excursions. She hopes the fearful boy will feel comfortable enough to confide in her about what’s worrying him.
Instead, she bumps into his imposing father-Richard Byron-who was recently acquitted of the murder of his friend. Setting aside the spark she felt between them before she was aware of who he was, Charity vows to keep Richard from discovering David’s whereabouts. After all, the boy is clearly scared to death of his violent father. A dramatic chase across Southern France soon ensues, as Richard pursues Charity after learning she knows his son. However, there are as many twists in this drama as there are in the curving French roadways. Charity discovers that the people and events of this drama are not as they first appear. Soon, she finds herself in a life-or death fight to save those she has come to love.
I loved Madam, Will You Talk?-it was the perfect blend of romance and suspense. It’s definitely earned a place at the top of my favorite Mary Stewart novels list. It was a delicious bit of pure escapism, that also happens to be beautifully written.
The setting of Southern France with its Roman ruins and craggy cliffs, brilliantly enhances the drama. There were so many of Mary Stewart’s descriptive and evocative sentences that I wanted to savor. Madam, Will You Talk? has a highly cinematic feel to it-I could easily picture so much of the plot seamlessly unfolding on the large screen. Charity herself makes several references to acting and playing parts in a dramatic tragedy. As per usual, Stewart’s use of literary epigraphs perfectly set the stage for each chapter’s events.
I loved the cat and mouse chase between Charity and Richard, and the sweet and protective friendship between David and Charity. This was ultimately one of my favorite Stewart romances. Her characters were perfect, and I didn’t want to have to say goodbye to them.
The murder plot was especially sinister-the stakes felt sufficiently high throughout, with the suspense building to a perfect and dramatic conclusion. I didn’t want this one to end, but when it inevitably did, I was very happy with the results.
The Moon-Spinners, Mary Stewart
First published 1962
Capable and independent Nicola Ferris-who works as a secretary at the British Embassy in Athens-has just arrived on the island of Crete, where she will be vacationing with her older Botanist cousin Frances. Before she even makes it to the small hotel where they will be staying, Nicola stumbles upon an injured Englishman and his Greek guide who are clearly in hiding. After some digging, Nicola learns that this Englishman Mark and his teenaged brother Colin, were inadvertent witnesses to a murder.
As a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Mark was shot and left for dead, and Colin is missing. After aiding Mark as much as she is able, they decide Nicola should continue on to her hotel as planned in order to stay out of harm’s way. As it turns out however, it will not be that easy to disentangle herself-or her heart-from the growing danger that is circling her new friends.
I have to say that this is probably my least favorite Mary Stewart that I’ve read to date. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it by any means, only that I’ve enjoyed the others more. Even so, this was a fun, fast-paced read. As always, the setting was described in such vivid detail that Crete became a secondary character in its own right. Stewart’s descriptions of the rocky White Mountains, the azure sea, and all the flora and fauna really bring the island to life.
Since a large part of the action and danger occurs very early in the novel, there wasn’t that slow build up of suspense that I love so much in the other Mary Stewart novels I’ve read. I didn’t find the ending as exciting as the drama that came before. In fact, it felt like it petered out a bit, concluding with a whimper instead of a bang.
I also found the romance to be lackluster and closed the book not feeling like I had a strong connection to the characters. I didn’t feel like Nicola was quite as well-developed as Stewart’s other heroines, and I wasn’t too impressed with Mark as a love interest either. I did love the supporting characters, particularly Colin and Toby and the dash of comedy they both supplied. If I hadn’t read The Moon-Spinners so soon after reading Madam, Will You Talk?, I would probably have rated it higher. I simply loved the latter more, and it was always going to be a difficult Stewart novel to live up to.
Have you read either of these delightful and suspenseful Mary Stewart novels?