My rating: 4/10
Omigosh. This book. Words (almost) fail me. 110% gothic romance, and absolutely bizarre in plot and execution. Luckily I’ve been on something of a Mary Stewart binge recently, and this came along as book number six; if it was number one or two I doubt I would have had the heart to continue.
I try my hardest, in reviewing anything in the mystery-suspense line, to not include any spoilers, but, in this case, all bets are off. Consider yourself forewarned!
This one starts off promisingly enough. Jennifer Silver, 22-year-old daughter of the Bullen Professor of Music at Oxford, is ethereally lovely (of course!) and rather at loose ends, despite recent years at art school. She sits in the dining room of her hotel in the French Pyrenees, tucking into a most delectable-sounding repast. She is thrilled to be in France again – she has visited in the past – and is looking forward with anticipation to her planned reunion with her half-French older cousin, who, widowed not long after her marriage, is convalescing from a recent illness in a nearby convent. More than merely convalescing; Gillian has sought solace in religion, and is thinking of becoming a nun, much to Jennifer’s not-so-secret dismay. But something isn’t quite right in a larger sense, and Jennifer sits and mulls over her cousin’s situation with increasing unease. Why have her chatty letters suddenly stopped? Tomorrow Jennifer will be going to the Convent of Notre-Dame-des-Orages to meet Gillian, but she’s not quite sure what she’ll find. (Cue foreboding music. Oh, and a love theme, for here appears a prince on a white charger. Figuratively speaking. The real horse shows up later.)
For who should appear but a figure from Jennifer’s past. Up pops handsome Stephen Masefield, an old student of Professor Silver’s. Jennifer has dallied with Stephen in Oxford days, and he has long cherished a secret passion for the lovely Jenny despite her mother’s brusque dismissal of his courtship, all unbeknownst to the innocent maiden. Stephen comes with an intriguing past, and is dashingly handsome despite his slight limp from an old war wound (this is all taking place post World War II, in the mid 1950s or thereabouts) as well as exceedingly talented, both in music and as a skilled amateur artist.
Lots of details, yes, I know. But every single one of them matters in the upcoming narrative, for this is an exceedingly busy story, chock full of details affecting details, and coincidences and lucky (or unlucky) juxtapositions of people and events. I’ll cut to the chase, if I may, and give the barest outline of the action to follow.
Jennifer goes to the convent, meets a sinister Spanish nun dressed in a silken habit and sporting a flashing ruby-encrusted cross, and is informed that her cousin was indeed in residence, but that she has died and is buried in the convent graveyard. Something about an automobile accident, and crawling up to the convent gates after midnight, and devoted nursing and a sudden decline… Jennifer is in shock and visits the grave, where a glimpse of a bouquet of gentians sets off a train of speculation in her mind. Perhaps Gillian is still alive, and a mystery woman is buried in her place…?!
The plot convolutes on its merry way, involving a rare form of colour blindness (Gillian would not have been able to identify gentians as her favourite flower – she cannot distinguish blue), a beautiful young novice who nursed Gillian, a stunningly gorgeous local youth dashing about on a wicked stallion, the aforementioned sinister Spanish nun, the extremely old, kind and blind Mother Superior who is unaware of the fact that the Spanish nun, her bursar, is filling the convent with war-looted treasures (solid gold fittings, altar pieces by El Greco, jewelled statues, etcetera), a local smuggler in cahoots with said nun, a vitally crucial letter found tucked behind a picture – this coincidence put me off the story early on – absolutely contrived! – midnight forays by everyone generally ending in eavesdropping on startling conversations, a mystery woman in a mountain cottage, multiple thunderstorms (“thunder on the right” – aha!), a landslide, a flash flood, a slender rock bridge over a ravine, the heroine’s habit of delicately fainting at crucial moments, Stephen’s multiple heroic accomplishments – mastering the wild stallion! hand-to-hand combat skills! great kissing! – on and on and on we go.
The girl in the mountain hut is Gillian; the little novice goes off with her handsome horseman; the evil nun and the smuggler meet their comeuppances; the woman buried in the nunnery garden is the criminal alluded to in casual conversation early in the story. Jennifer is passionately kissed not only by her dashing swain, but by the testosterone-drenched smuggler, who manages to keep his carnal urges on a high boil even while fleeing for his life when the predictable dénouement occurs.
Moments of lovely writing – Mary Stewart does excel at her descriptions – and snippets of humour here and there did not make up for the messy, too-busy, coincidence-heavy plot. Jennifer is the most unbelievable of all of the Mary Stewart heroines I’ve met so far – the others have been very likeable – and I found her utterly annoying. The whole thing was too full of heaving bosoms – can even a nun have a heaving bosom? Well, yes, apparently – and surging stallions and heavily gothic settings. Too much!
I have been soothing myself with a return to sedate O. Douglas, and am now reading Eliza for Common with relief. Thunder on the Right has rattled me badly, coming as it did after Mary Stewart’s rather more excellent My Brother Michael, which I have yet to review. I liked that one a whole lot more.
Thunder on the Right was apparently the author’s least favourite of her novels, and I can see why. Here are her own words, courtesy of the excellent Mary Stewart Novels website:
From Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1, 1967
Ms. Stewart once claimed Thunder on the Right as her least favorite novel. “I detest that book. I’m ashamed of it, and I’d like to see it drowned beyond recovery. It’s overwritten. It was actually the second book I wrote, and for some strange reason I went overboard, splurged with adjectives, all colored purple.”
I’m glad I read it, though, if only to contrast with the rest of the author’s works. It is indeed interesting to see her development as a writer over the course of her career. I’m only read six of the novels so far, and I’m definitely seeing a pattern of evolution. Very interesting. I intend to continue to explore the vividly painted, action-packed worlds of Mary Stewart, though I may have to take a bit of a break to regain my equilibrium after this latest foray.