My rating: 7.5/10
This was my third Mary Stewart romantic thriller read in the last few weeks, and it was perhaps my favourite to date. Where This Rough Magic (1964) was set in exotic Corfu and referenced the English theatre world, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Communist politics in Albania, and a passionately fast-developing love affair between the heroine and a brooding hero-type, and Airs Above the Ground (1965) was set in the Austrian Alps and concerned itself with a complicated plot involving a happily married heroine, her two male companions, and a group of circus performers, The Ivy Tree is a much more sedate and personality driven story, and much more concerned with psychology rather than straight-out action as in the other two tales.
In this tale of family and inheritance and underhand plotting, the reader is never quite sure who is telling the truth, and what is really going on. The threads of the story wind about this way and that until the tapestry takes shape and the true picture emerges near the end. Told (as are the other two stories) in first person narration by the key female character, we are not quite sure if she is indeed the heroine in the accepted sense, for her actions are unreliable and her inner dialogue frequently less than frank with the reader. And though there were occasional credibility gaps in this story – as in the others – by and large it was an intriguingly detailed mystery.
Here is the basic plot outline, from the flyleaf of a 1962 edition:
Mary Grey had come from Canada to the land of her forebears: Northumberland, where Hadrian built his wall nearly 2000 years ago. As she leaned against the sun-warmed stones, savoring the ordered, spare beauty of England’s northern fells, the silence was shattered by a single name hurled, as it were, like an epithet:
And there stood one of the angriest, most threatening young men Mary had ever seen. His name was Connor Winslow, and from his spate of words Mary discovered that he thought she was his cousin–a girl supposedly dead these past eight years. Alive, she would be heiress to an inheritance Con determined to have for himself…
Thus begins the story of an impersonation fraught with the perils of treading present depths without the buoyancy of an innocent past. To it, Mrs. Stewart brings her remarkable ability to create atmosphere be it joyous, brooding, or terrifying. And with her acknowledged talent for characterization, she delineates sharply the savage, ruthless, half-sardonical Con; his drab half-sister, Lisa, firm only in her dedication to Con and his wishes; arrogant Matthew Windlow, a failing tyrant, by tyrant nonetheless where his family was concerned; the ebullient, sometimes rebellious Cousin Julie; and Adam Forrest, the reserved owner of neighboring Forrest Hall, now a widower, but eight years before, inextricably tied to a hysterical, neurotic wife and tormented by his love for Annabel.
With admirable skill, Mary Stewart practices the full scale of uncertainty while developing a theme embellished with the rich overtones of atmosphere and characterization.
That’s the basic outline, but the story itself is even more complex than this summary would indicate. Though some of the characters – including the true love interest of the heroine – never received much more than a superficial characterization, many of the others were nicely portrayed, showing realistic complexities of good and bad, and delving into motivations, and justifying contradictory behaviours in a most believable way.
Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar was an obvious inspiration, and the author openly acknowledges that, giving the novel to her characters as a guidebook to their own planned deception; I enjoyed the parallels, as Brat Farrar is one of my favourite Teys (if there can be such a thing – I do love every single one of Josephine Tey’s too-few novels), and Stewart’s take-off of it was different enough to hold my interest.
I won’t say much else; this is a novel that rewards coming to it without too much foreknowledge of the crucial details of the plot.
The “what bugged me” bits were similar to the other Mary Stewarts I’ve just read: a too-convenient disposal of the “bad” character(s), with a rather too-rushed and too-neat conclusion. There were some fairly major holes in the story, and readerly questions left unanswered; I am thinking that one must just put up with this tendency of the author’s and enjoy the enjoyable bits regardless, but it does stop me from rating the books higher on my personal scale.
Last thought: well done. I will be reading this one again; I enjoyed it.
The Ivy Tree was read and reviewed for Mary Stewart Reading Week , September 15th to 21st, celebrating the author’s long career and her 97th birthday on September 17th, 2013. Mary Stewart Reading Week was initiated and hosted by Gudrun’s Tights.