Summer Books in Progress and Mary Stewart’s “Wildfire at Midnight”

Oh, dear, I have neglected the blog lately.

This week I have unplugged from electronic devices and devoted time to observing “nature.” Often I don’t get beyond the yard, and I certainly don’t garden, but I agree with Alan Lightman, author of In Praise of Wasting Time, that doing nothing is a good way to replenish creativity.  And it’s delightful, when it’s not too hot, to sit outside with a book.  Birds twitter chattily and fly in and out of the trees and shrubs.  I don’t remember ever seeing so many birds.  Perhaps I never looked up from my book!

A little nature goes a long way:  naturally I have several books in progress, including an 800-page Victorian novel. Such a satisfying experience!  Why were the Victorians such splendid writers?  Were they harder workers than modern keyboarders?   Look forward to a gossipy post on a three-volume 19th-century novel soon.

You may be surprised to learn that I am also making my way through a few galleys.  I don’t usually go the Netgalley route, because I tend to get behind, but this time I selected only books I might read anyway and did not go rogue with unknowns.  I am currently reading Lucia Berlin’s Evening in Paradise:  More Stories, a collection of 22 offbeat short stories by a brilliant American writer whose fiction, published mostly by small presses in her lifetime, was revived in 2015 when FSG published A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, Selected Stories (which I wrote about here.)  I will post on Evening in Paradise this fall.

My Mary Stewart book of the summer.  I adore Mary Stewart, whose Gothic novels were popular in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, and whose heroines were my role models.  As a young girl under the influence of Stewart I considered becoming an actress (like Lucy in This Rough Magic), a veterinarian (like Vanessa in Airs Above the Ground), or a teacher at Cambridge (like Rose inThe Stormy Petrel).  The Stewart heroine I most resemble is Camilla, the Latin teacher in My Brother Michael, and believe me I never dreamed that would happen. (This is one of my favorites, and I posted about it here.)

Stewart’s beautifully-written novels can also be read as travel books, because Stewart’s smart, plucky narrators are always on vacation in exotic places and her  descriptions of landscape are lyrical.   And the romantic plots are both entrancing and formulaic:  the heroine (a) travels to Greece, France, Austria, or a gorgeous island to take a break from ordinary life, (b) meets two men, one of whom is a hero, the other a villain, and it takes a while to figure out which is which; and (c) eventually solves a mystery.

This summer I chose to reread Wildfire at Midnight, Stewart’s second novel, published in 1956.  Is it her best?  No, and do not start with it.  But it is set in Scotland, and I have always wanted to travel there.  I would love to visit Skye in 1953, when the book is set.

The narrator, Gianetta, a model in London, has as much work as she can handle, but her personal life is empty.  And don’t worry about her being a vacuous beauty–far from it!  She’s very bright and thoughtful.   She misses her ex-husband, a brilliant novelist, and regrets divorcing him: he was unfaithful.  In need of a vacation, she desperately wants to leave  London, which is crowded with an influx of tourists for the Coronation. So when her parents  recommend a hotel on Skye, she takes their advice.  The mountainous island is gorgeous, threaded with forests.

This is a murder mystery, but you read it for the atmosphere, the landscape descriptions, and the witty, almost theatrical dialogue, because the plot is slight.  One of the guests is a famous actress, Marcia Maling, whose doctor has ordered her to take a break from the stage.  When Gianetta learns Marcia has brought a car and chauffeur to Skye, she exclaims, “Is that what you call vegetating?”  Marcia replies,  “Well, I hate walking.”

On her first night at the hotel, Gianetta relaxes.  Stewart goes a little crazy with ellipses here, but I love the description of comfortable boredom.

I yawned and stretched a toe to the blaze, and drank some more sherry.  Idly I turned the pages of an old society weekly which lay at my elbow.  The usual flashlighted faces, cruelly caught at hunt suppers and charity ball,s gaped from the glossy pages… beautiful horses, plain women, well-dressed men… the London Telephone Directory, I thought, would be far more interesting.  I flicked the pages.  There were the usual photographs of me, this time poised against an Adam mantelpiece, in one of Hugo Montefiror’s most inspired evening gowns… I remembered it well, a lovely frock.  Here was the theatre page–Alec Guiness in an improbable beard, Vivien Leigh making every other woman within reach look plain, Marcia Maling giving the camera the famous three-cornered smile, staring at vacancy with those amazing eyes….

Gianetta’s ex- is staying at the hotel, and will they get back together?  What about that nice Alaistair?  Will He Be the One?   Although this is not a locked-room mystery, there is murder on the mountains and the guests are the main suspects.   It is suspenseful, though not Stewart’s most original plot.