When I heard the sad news of Mary Stewart’s death recently I wanted to read one of her books as a tribute. There are still quite a few that I haven’t read and I decided on this one, her debut novel from 1955. It was a great choice because I loved it.
The novel is narrated by Charity Selborne, a young widow on holiday in the south of France with her best friend, Louise, an art teacher. Settling into their hotel, they get to know the other guests, including David, a thirteen-year-old boy from England, and his beautiful French stepmother. When Charity hears that David’s father, Richard Byron, has recently been acquitted of murder and could be in France at this moment searching for his son, she grows worried for the boy’s safety…but her efforts to protect David mean that she herself becomes Richard’s next target.
There’s a lot more to the story than that, but I really don’t want to say much more about it because this is one of Mary Stewart’s most exciting and suspenseful novels and I would like everyone to be as enthralled by the twists and turns of the plot as I was. All I will say is that this book contains one of my favourite sequences in all of the Stewart novels I’ve read – a thrilling car chase in which Charity is pursued across the French countryside (in a chapter appropriately titled Exit, pursued by a Bear – another thing I love about Mary Stewart is the way she works so many literary and mythological references into her writing).
This book is very dated now and definitely feels like one that was written in the 1950s, but I think that just adds to its charm. There are also lots of stunning descriptions of Avignon, Nîmes, Marseilles and all the other places Charity’s adventures take her to (I was pleased to see that her visit to Marseilles included a trip to the Chateau d’If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo). I particularly loved this description of Charity watching the sun rise above the remote village of Les Baux:
“How long I sat out there, in a coign of carved stone and rough rock, I do not know. Long enough, I suppose, for my vigil did at length bring in the dawn. I saw the first light, forerunning the sun, gather in a cup of the eastern cloud, gather and grow and brim, till at last it spilled like milk over the golden lip, to smear the dark face of heaven from end to end. From east to north, and back to south again, the clouds slackened, the stars, trembling on the verge of extinction, guttered in the dawn wind and the gates of day were ready to open at the trumpet…”
Since discovering Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels three years ago I have been hoping to find another one to match the brilliance of the first one I read, Nine Coaches Waiting. Now that I’ve read eight more of her books, I think Nine Coaches will always be my favourite, but Madam, Will You Talk? has come very close!
I think Anbolyn is hosting another Mary Stewart Reading Week in September, so whether you’re already a Stewart fan or whether you have yet to try any of her books, I hope you’ll consider joining in. I have Wildfire at Midnight, Thunder on the Right, My Brother Michael and Airs Above the Ground still to read, but maybe it’s time I tried her Merlin series which I’ve heard so much about. What do you think?