I have been away for a week sunning myself in the clear air of Colorado but now I am back to my Boston reality with plenty to talk about. I read a ton on the plane, caught up on Pretty Little Liars at night with thunder booming outside (not terrifying or anything), and ate myself into a food coma as often as possible. I also went back to school shopping, but it is a bit early to be bringing that up so that will have to wait for a later post. Today I want to talk about an author who might only be recognizable to me and the women in my extended family, which is a shame because she is fantastic and can spin a mystery romance like no other. Her name is Mary Stewart and she wrote suspenseful, romantic, very British novels starting in 1954. Now, Wikipedia would have you believe her novels are “Gothic Romances” but that is a misleading category to thrust her novels into. Her novels are more on the Northanger Abbey end of gothic than the Mysteries of Udolpho end. Or, in more up to date terms, her novels are less Vampire Diaries and more Supernatural. Although that’s not even a great example, since only a very few contain any trace of the supernatural. Most of them are just plain old-fashioned mysteries with a beautiful girl caught up unwittingly in a grisly murder, a smuggling ring, or a kidnapping.
I read This Rough Magic on the plane on the way back from Denver, so I will go ahead and review that one for your reading pleasure. This Rough Magic is set in Corfu, an island off the Greek mainland. Many of Stewart’s novels are set in foreign locales like this one, with a British miss navigating smartly through the exotic terrain. In this one, a famous and now retired Shakespearean actor, Sir Julian Gale, has hidden himself away on the island believed to be the real-life setting for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Miss Lucy Waring, visiting her sister on the island, encounters him, his dashing musician of a son, and an Albanian smuggling ring. All in a normal vacation for a Mary Stewart heroine. Now all this sounds a bit silly, and it all is a bit, in the best way. But what sets Stewart apart is that she is an excellent and enjoyable writer. Her plots are not overly complex and mostly everything is going to turn out fine in the end, a la a Shakespearean comedy, but her writing lifts them far above the realm of mere light suspenseful romance. She’s smart; her heroines are smart. There are no bimbos in Mary Stewart, something I admire and long for from other authors. There’s also no smut. There are plenty of romantic scenes that make your heart go pitter patter but there is no smut, which is sort of nice after all the heavy breathing in most romantic novels.
I am not generally a fan of romance novels, to be honest. Nor do I often turn to literature for suspense. I am much more interested in the social complexities of Jane Eyre, the theme of dominance in Daniel Deronda, or the idea of suffering in Gone With the Wind. My reading is mostly of the pretentious sort and Mary Stewart novels don’t wholly escape that simultaneously complementary and derisive term. But they are also beach reads. They are not too long; they are cozy and perfect for curling up on a rainy day and shooting through in one sitting. Everything is going to turn out well and the beautiful and brave heroine will end up with the loving hero and all the bad guys will get exactly what is coming to them. Which is sort of restful and sweet sometimes. I turn to them for pure pleasure, just as I turn to a good Cary Grant movie. Maybe it’s that era I am looking to recapture the flavor of, with glamorous women in waist cinching dresses having grand adventures among the narcissus on Crete while their heroes love them desperately and faithfully. For whatever reason, I enjoy them immensely and I hope you check them out yourself.
You can find them on Amazon, but getting them from a used bookstore is much more rewarding, as you will get the nice old covers that I have been showing here. Unfortunately they are not up on kindle, for that would also be a great and cheap way to read them. But the easiest way is to borrow them from me, as I collect copies whenever I can find them. I have three copies of This Rough Magic alone. So believe me, if you are looking for a great summer read that takes you into the world of the 50’s, this is the perfect thing for you.