I love Mary Stewart. Perhaps she is my equivalent of Daphne du Maurier. I discovered The Moon-Spinners when I was nine, and have read and reread her books. Stewart is the most literary of “romantic suspense” writers, and her books might just as easily be called “travel suspense.” Her intelligent heroines are always on vacation in exotic places, where they stumble into danger, help solve a mystery, and fall in love with a sexy, articulate man. Stewart’s physically-fit intellectuals are more my type even than Jamie in Outlander, who has set the bar since 1991. And I am quite surprised that I never met such a man in Greece, Corfu, Crete, Austria, etc., because I knew from reading these books that it was supposed to happen!
I recently reread My Brother Michael. I particularly like this one because it’s set in Greece, mostly in Delphi, and the epigraphs are from Sophocles’ Electra. And the quiet heroine, though likable, is a little mousier than some: in other words, we could compete!
The thoughtful narrator, Camilla, a Latin teacher who recently broke up with her fiance, is sitting alone in a cafe in Athens on vacation. She writes in a letter to a friend, “Nothing ever happens to me.”
But she still enjoys Athens.
…It occurred to me, thinking of that last depressed sentence in my letter to Elizabeth, that enough was happening at the moment to satisfy all but the most adventure-hungry. That is the impression that Athens gives one. Everyone is moving, talking, gesticulating–but particularly talking. The second one remembers in Athens is not the clamour of the impatiently congested traffic, or the perpetual hammer or pneumatic drill or even the sound of chisels chipping away at the Pentelic marble… [but] the sound of Athenian voices arguing, laughing, talk-talk-talking, as once they talked the world into shape in the busy colonnades of the Agora, not so very far from where I sat.
Then an adventure happens to Camilla. A Greek stranger enters the cafe and drops car keys on her table. He tells her the car she has rented for Simon in Delphi is ready. She protests that she did not rent the car, but he insists she left a deposit and says, “And Mademoiselle said it was a matter of life and death.” And then he leaves.
So she goes to Delphi. She had planned to go anyway. And her trip to Delphi is hilarious. She is not a good driver, and she gets stuck behind a bus packed with people, chickens and goats. The driver won’t let her pass, and I can just visualizes the macho Greek who accelerates every time she timidly approaches. Finally a bold woman driver races past the bus, with much blowing of the horn, and Camilla follows in her wake. And this is appropriate, because the other woman, we learn later, is Camilla’s doppelgänger.
But where is Simon? In Delphi, she cannot find anyone who rented a car. She meets a charming Englishman named Simon, who takes her on a moonlight tour of the temple and theater at Delphi, and because. Because he is a classics teacher he is the perfect guide. I wanted to rush off to Delphi and pray to Apollo!
But Simon has a serious reason for visiting Delphi. He has come to pay homage to his brother Michael, who worked undercover in the Resistance on Parnassus during World War II. A Greek traitor murdered him. And in his last letter home he mentioned that he had discovered something valuable.
In the course of the book Camilla and Simon drink ouzo and retsina, climb Parnassus, and encounter some truly sociopathic thugs.
It is very exciting, well-plotted and beautifully written.
If you haven’t read Stewart, let me recommend starting with my favorite, This Rough Magic, set in Corfu, which plays with the theme of The Tempest. I blogged about it here.
But I have enjoyed most of her books. I especially like the ones from the ’50s and ’60s.
Stewart does write beautifully, and I remember reading my mother’s copies of these when I was growing up. Such a shame we never meet that kind of man in real life!
Her men actually talk about myths and the gods, and it’s romantic. Somehow it might not have come off in real life…
On Thu, Jul 13, 2017 at 5:27 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
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I like this pairing. Maybe Stewart does perform an analogous function in our dream lives as young women, only DuMaurier gives us nightmares instead of idyllic happiness, engimatic and gothic thwarting instead of romance fulfillment. I too wish I could meet such men.
I need to read more du Maurier!
Not only does Simon quote Sophocles, but he also knows how to fight off a villainous thug. A mix of qualities that may not be quite real…
On Thu, Jul 13, 2017 at 5:47 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
This sounds like the perfect book for you. I read many of Stewart’s books when I was a teenager and I was sure my life would turn out like her novels. It did in many ways. I’ve been rereading the books in the last few years and enjoying them as much as I did the first time.
Oh, Stewart is so good, isn’t she? In some ways I became a Stewart heroine, but there has been more camping in the woods than travel. Perhaps that would have been the way with Camilla and Simon, who did seem very outdoorsy.
On Thu, Jul 13, 2017 at 7:35 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
My goodness, you’re certainly bringing back memories for me with these last posts. Mary Stewart was another of my mother’s favorite writers. The first cover you picture of My Brother Michael looks very familiar; and so authentic ’50s/’60s. I can’t remember if I actually read any Stewart; you make it tempting. If you mention Victoria Holt or Mary Roberts Rinehart next, I’ll know you’ve been rummaging in my mother’s bookshelves!
Yes, these writers all are queens of their genre, aren’t they? Stewart seems the most literary to me, but I will give du Maurier a second look! I do enjoy those old paperbacks. I read most of them in library editions, but there are definitely some nice paperbacks these days.
What a lovely post. I adore Mary Stewart’s writing and My Brother Michael is a favourite of mine for the same reasons you mention here: I have read the book countless times and still laugh when I read about Camilla’s driving, and I’m still in awe of Mary Stewart’s writing of setting, atmosphere and suspense.
If you are interested, it would be great if you wanted to participate in some polls on my blog to try to find out who are Mary Stewart readers’ favourite heroines, there are links to the polls in my latest post here: https://marystewartreading.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/mary-stewart-bulletin-july-2017/ Camilla and especially Lucy are proving popular in their categories.
Thank you! I love Mary Stewart and will make a point of visiting your site.
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Oops! Beautiful blog, but I can’t get any of the articles to load. It must be my computer…
Oh, that doesn’t sound good. Thanks for letting me know. Hopefully a glitch? – it is behaving for me on my phone and laptop. Perhaps try entering the site a different way, eg google Mary Stewart blog?
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