Book Review: This Rough Magic

mary stewart

The author Mary Stewart is one of my favorite finds from years ago when I wandered up and down the library shelves looking for something new. The old book I picked up then was Nine Coaches Waiting, and it captivated me. It captivated me in the way an old movie from the 50s or 60s does, portraying a brilliant, exotic backdrop, an unrealistic luxurious lifestyle, and sparkling dialogue.

Mary Stewart was a British author who came to the height of her powers in the late 50s and 60s, so it is no coincidence that her books remind me so strongly of the same era’s films. She excelled at writing contemporary Gothic-style romance and romantic mysteries. Normally, I am not a huge fan of romance, but Stewart is just that good, and the romance is not too heavy-handed.

During our trip last summer to the UK, I spent a lot of time in Waterstone’s, the British equivalent of a Barnes & Noble, only far better. So much of the fiction I love is British fiction, and it was a paradise to see all of my hard-to-find-here favorites stocking the shelves, covered in lovely, attractive designs. I can rarely find Mary Stewart on a bookshelf here, even at the library, and over time I’ve ordered a few American reprints online. But Waterstone’s had gobs of them with period artwork on the covers. Oh, if only I had had more space in my suitcase. I came home with way too many books as it was.

Of the many Stewart books on the shelf, I chose This Rough Magic, thinking that it was one I hadn’t read before. Unfortunately, as soon as I started reading it, I realized it was one that I had read probably ten years ago. But I lucked out in that I couldn’t remember “who did it!”

this rough magicThis Rough Magic is the story of young and single Lucy Waring, who is visiting her sister’s family for the summer on the Greek island of Corfu. Lucy has been trying her luck as an actress in London and failing miserably. Although she’s on holiday, she’s thrilled to find out that the London stage icon, Julian Gale, is living on the estate next to her sister’s villa. The elderly actor lives the life of a recluse, however, and Lucy does not expect to meet him.

Lucy’s adventures begin when she’s out for a swim in the bay and encounters a dolphin. The dolphin charms Lucy with his apparent desire to make friends. A few minutes into their friendship, however, shots are fired toward the dolphin from somewhere up along the rocky coastline. Lucy spots a man standing on the balcony of Julian Gale’s estate and assumes he is the shooter. Foolishly running back uphill, Lucy has a fevered exchange with the man, who turns out to be Gale’s son, Max. (Max is played in my head by a middle-aged Cary Grant.) Max, of course, denies being the shooter. Needless to say, Lucy and the Gales get off to a rough start.

While she might be able to dismiss someone cruelly taking shots at a dolphin, events soon become so serious that Lucy cannot ignore them. A local teenager, the son and brother of the hired help at her sister’s villa, drowns out at sea during that same night. The young boy was out with the English neighbor, Godfrey Manning, taking nighttime photographs of the sea. Godfrey claims the death was an accident.

Lucy finds herself caught between the conflicting tales of Max Gale and Godfrey Manning. The men hate each other, but why? And what was really going on during that nighttime sail? Lucy quickly ends up in over her head trying to trap a killer. But Mary Stewart loves strong heroines—intelligent, full of common sense, likable—and Lucy is no exception.

Along the way, Lucy discovers the secrets of the reclusive Gales. Julian is convinced Corfu is the magical island of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The locally revered saint is St. Spiridion, which is a close Greek match for Prospero, and many local boys are named Spiro. The island’s topography and plant-life are reminiscent of the play, as well. Is “this rough magic” of Prospero’s still at work on the citizens of the island?

Mary Stewart never disappoints me with a cookie-cutter or lackluster tale, and her writing is always smart. She might be writing popular fiction, but she does not dumb it down. In This Rough Magic alone, she covers Shakespeare, local religious beliefs, counterfeit money, and the Communist-era conflict surrounding Albania. She has a great command of dialogue (which is another way in which it is reminiscent of a classic movie). The only thing that did not ring true to me in this volume was the speed with which Lucy falls in love. For all of her cleverness, she assumed the innocence of her favorite rather too quickly, in an uncharacteristically emotional way.

My favorite thing about Mary Stewart, though, is her firm grasp on her setting. She makes the most of her setting’s history and local color, and literally provides an armchair vacation for her readers. In This Rough Magic, Corfu comes alive in vibrant color and sound. Reading Mary Stewart is escapism at its best.

★ ★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: The Lake House

The Lake House

Kate Morton, The Lake House. Atria Books: 2015.

I get this feeling about history. My first “historical” memory is of being eight years old at Colonial Williamsburg, totally immersed in a different time and place, where I looked around and saw nothing out of place aside from the gawky, t-shirted tourists around me. In the church, a tour guide led me down the aisle and asked me to take a seat in a pew to my right. He then told me that pew was George Washington’s pew. Call me weird, but there’s hardly anything more inspiring to a history nerd than sitting where George Washington sat—there’s an instant connection with someone dead and gone nearly two hundred years before. I can’t remember anything else in childhood sparking my imagination to such an extent.

The fascination with the “old-fashioned” matured into my grown-up love/passion/obsession for old houses. The history feeling that pervades an old house is more intense than the casual curiosity of museum pieces taken from their natural habitats and put in glass cases under bright lights. In an old house, it’s so easy to imagine people living—laughing, loving, making tough decisions, grieving—through the events we learn of from elementary school onward. On my last trip to Charleston, I stood in the second floor library of a house on the Battery, looking out the window toward where Fort Sumter was visible on the horizon. The docent told me that P.G.T. Beauregard watched the battle for Fort Sumter from that room. Standing where he stood, the years telescoped backward. What were the men in that room thinking during the battle? What were the women in that house thinking? In an old house, it’s far easier to imagine the drama played out in that foreign, yet familiar, place called the past.

Fort Sumter as seen from the porch of the Edmonton-Alston House in Charleston, SC. November 2015.

Fort Sumter as seen from the porch of the Edmonton-Alston House in Charleston, SC. November 2015.

So what does this have to do with book reviews? My latest read was The Lake House by Kate Morton. I think Kate Morton must be something of a kindred spirit because she, more than any other author I’ve read, has that historical feeling about houses just like I do. In The Lake House, modern-day Detective Constable Sadie Sparrow comes across a beautiful deserted estate while she’s out for her morning run in Cornwall, England. Peering through the front windows into the library, Sadie sees a life abandoned, as if the actors in a play have just walked off of the stage for a moment—a delicate teacup sitting on a side table, a pencil-sketch of a child’s face on a desk—and she has a momentary sense of foreboding, a sense that something went terribly wrong in this house. Sadie learns from the locals that the Lake House is the scene of an unsolved crime, and she picks up the cold case during her forced leave from the police department.

Sadie discovers that in the summer of 1933 the Edevane family hosted a garden party at the Lake House—and by the end of it, their eleven-month-old son was missing. Anthony and Eleanor Edevane and their older children abandoned the house after months of searching revealed no trace of the lost boy. Alice Edevane, one of the baby’s older sisters, lived with a lifetime of questions and regrets after his disappearance and when Sadie contacts her in 2003, they finally have a chance of solving the mystery together.

I love the way in which Kate Morton weaves together story lines from the past and the present. It’s the defining characteristic of her novels. This technique plays up the strong connection that the past has to our lives now; the decisions of a moment, the unguarded passions, the selfishness we justify to ourselves, all cause a ripple effect greater than we can imagine and leave behind a lifetime of pain and regret. The Lake House is probably Morton’s most intricately, richly layered past-and-present novel yet. The moments in Eleanor’s and Alice’s lives that lead to the crisis of 1933 weave in and out with Sadie’s and Alice’s present-day personal troubles and regrets and keep the book moving, peeling back layer after layer of the cold-case mystery. The book’s resolution is satisfying and inevitable.

The Lake House is perfect for losing yourself in another time and place. And although all of Morton’s novels tend toward mysteries, this is the first with a real detective and lands happily in the mystery genre. As corny as it sounds, for me there’s nothing better than a mystery with history.

Book Review: My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel

Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel. This edition, Sourcebooks Landmark: 2009.

I didn’t discover Daphne du Maurier until I was 23 or 24 years old. I have no idea why I originally brought home an old hardcover copy of Rebecca from the library but, looking back, it was one of the best book discoveries that a reader can make. I was absolutely sucked in from the first page on—the suspenseful mood, the creepy housekeeper, the old mansion, the Britishness of it all—it’s just my cup of tea. When I finished I enthusiastically told a friend about this book I had discovered (and no, I had no idea it was a movie, either) and she looked at me with very little expression and said, “Yeah? You’re just now reading that?” So don’t be like me—if you’ve never read Rebecca, go and get it, as soon as you can.

While you’re at it, get a copy of My Cousin Rachel as well. Shortly after I finished Rebecca, I started systematically buying du Maurier novels. I haven’t found copies of all of them yet, but of the ones I’ve read, My Cousin Rachel is nearly as good as Rebecca and just as much fun to read. I recently re-read MCR in a fit of post-Downton Abbey melancholy and liked it as much as I did the first time. If you like period BBC drama or mystery novels, I’m sure you’ll like these books.

My Cousin Rachel is a romantic and suspenseful tale told in the Gothic tradition (maybe light on the romance and heavy on the mystery/suspense; although I typically don’t read romance, I guess I have a weakness for the Gothic style). The first thing we see is a man, hanging, and the shadow of madness and evil that it casts over the life of our narrator, Philip Ashley, from his youth onward. And then comes the question at the heart of the novel, “Was Rachel innocent or guilty?”

Philip Ashley is twenty-four when we meet him. He has returned home to Cornwall from his years of schooling at Oxford, happy in the expectation of living a bachelor’s life with his cousin Ambrose Ashley, who raised him when he was orphaned as a small boy. Ambrose’s health, however, soon requires him to travel to a warmer climate and he settles in Florence, where he meets a widow, Rachel. Ambrose writes glowingly to Philip of his acquaintance with Rachel and then writes that he has married her. And here the Gothic elements come fast and thick—his letters become fewer and darker, filled with suspicion of Rachel and accounts of his own terrifying spells of illness. Philip determines to go to him and receives one final letter as he pulls down the drive, a plea from Ambrose for Philip’s help. When Philip arrives in Florence Ambrose is dead and Rachel has disappeared.

Philip returns home with little but hatred for Rachel. He envisions her alternately as a murdering, scheming monster and a terrible, aged hag. He vows retribution for Ambrose’s death—until the day she arrives at his home a lovely, enchanting, and mystifying young woman. Here you may guess accurately at what happens next. But you cannot foresee the conclusion of the matter, and you wouldn’t want to, anyway, and miss out on the delicious suspense.

I read somewhere, I have no idea where now, that this book reads itself. And it does—it reads so smoothly and effortlessly that it’s like floating through the words and scenes. For the ease with which it came to life, I could have been watching a film. But while the story flows along and buoys exudes hopes and happiness, we know it will ultimately turn out badly for Philip because we’ve read the first chapter in the book, with its description of the hanged man.

**Some spoilers ahead—read at your own risk**

Reading Philip’s narrative is like watching an inevitable train wreck. He’s young and arrogant and makes more than a few idiotic mistakes. Even though we’d like to grab him and stop him from making the worst mistake of all, it’s hard to doubt him or his reliability until the end. And Rachel, such a masterfully created character, never stops making us wonder. We like her. She’s tender and generous, she mourns Ambrose—but she leads Philip on, she overspends, she keeps her own council except for with the shadowy man, Rainaldi, and she hides poison in her room.

There is never a clear answer to Philips question, “Was Rachel innocent or guilty?” The answer is both, and I think du Maurier wants us to live with the ambiguity. The more I think about it, the more guilt seems to be the theme of the novel. Did Rachel possess poison and use it on Ambrose and Philip? It seems to be undeniable. Did she come to the point of actually murdering Ambrose and would she have done the same to Philip? I don’t know. Did she ever love Ambrose? Or did she love Philip? Maybe she loved both. And then we have to ask, is Philip himself innocent or guilty? He’s definitely guilty of a blind infatuation that forces him to grasp for control over Rachel. And when Philip realizes how much Rachel has played him, he turns violent. In a world where men held all of the legal and financial power, Rachel could have felt threatened. Given that du Maurier makes Philip out to be Ambrose’s double, it is possible that Rachel felt the same threat from Ambrose.

It has been so long since I first read MCR that I had (happily) forgotten the ending. There’s nothing much more satisfying in a suspense novel, in a backwards sort of way, than being nearly convinced of someone’s guilt and then having doubt poured all over it. Du Maurier pours loads of doubt over Rachel’s guilt at the end—so much so that Philip begins to doubt it himself. And—we’ll never know. In this way the end of the novel is pure tragedy. Is Philip responsible for Rachel’s demise? Legally, no. But he holds himself guilty of it, and this is what I think brings the novel full circle. I believe many of Rachel’s actions were motivated by guilt—whether for killing Ambrose or not loving him enough—and as the femme fatale, she has turned that guilt over to Philip.

If you’ve never read My Cousin Rachel, I hope you’ll enjoy it. If you have, what do you think of Rachel?

A Touch of Wimsey

I am a through-and-through Anglophile. If anyone’s asked me, I’ve always pegged myself as more of a Francophile—I studied the language for 8(!!) years, I decorate my house with little Eiffel Towers and French words and I dream non-stop of my next trip to France—but maybe, just maybe, I’m really more of an Anglophile. Probably 90% of the literature I pick up was a) written by an English person or b) written about an English person living in England. And probably 90% of the television I watch for my own enjoyment is—yes, British TV.

I’ve got British mysteries in the blood, I think. I grew up on Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes and now, admittedly, I sometimes walk past the “C” and “D” sections of the bookstore subconsciously hoping that Christie and Doyle have miraculously released something new (yes, I do it in “A” for Austen and “B” for Bronte, too). It’s hard for me to love anything as much as I love the classics. So while I was in a bit of a funk about not reading any good books for a stretch, a friend recommended Dorothy Sayers. Sayers is just as classic age-wise as Christie and Doyle but I’ve managed to avoid her all these years. I have no idea why. I picked up one of her later Lord Peter mysteries several years ago and wasn’t thrilled—I had no idea who Peter was or what he was like. It was a mistake to start in the middle. This time I started at the beginning with Whose Body?

It’s impossible to dislike Lord Peter, our amateur detective. The Anglophile in me was instantly satisfied with this light-hearted young lord, his posh Piccadilly flat, and his sleuthing-yet-ever-proper butler, Bunter. Lord Peter’s mother, the Duchess of Denver, calls on Peter to investigate whose body is in the bathtub of the local architect. At the same time, Lord Peter’s friend, the respectable detective Parker, investigates the disappearance of a London financier. The two sleuth their way in and around “Twenties” London to determine if these cases are at all linked. The mystery of whose body is in the bathtub proves more complex and more subtle than a Christie, and Lord Peter’s dabbling with forensics is reminiscent of Sherlock’s experiments.

Clouds of Witness brings back Lord Peter and all of my other new friends, including detective Parker and Peter’s spry mother. Clouds reminds me of a typical drawing-room mystery—an English country house full of guests, a night-time death, and an overabundance of motives and alibis. Yet this mystery has enough twists and oddities—the accused is Lord Peter’s brother, no less—to set it apart from others in its genre.

What sets Lord Peter and Dorothy Sayers apart, in my opinion—because, really, so many “cozy” mysteries have a formulaic feel—is the sparkling prose and the occasional glimpses of great insight and depth in Lord Peter. There are no dead descriptions or dialogue or flat characterizations, but an amateur detective fighting PTSD and a sense that he’s making too much of a game out of hunting murderers.

So if you’re in the mood for an English murder mystery with a bit of a special touch, pick up one of these.