As I have discovered as I make my way through the The Reread Project, my memory for novels isn’t quite what it used to be. I always was greatly proud of my exceptional (I thought) memory; which enabled me to list all the books in kids’ series in order off the top of my head, or plots and characters from every book I’d ever read–those days, sadly, are not only long past but those memories of books I’ve read have been crowded out over the years by other memories…and even in rereading books I was absolutely positive I’d read before, I am not at all certain that I’ve read them at all.
The Mary Stewart rereads, which have been terrific pleasures, have all turned out to be that way. I didn’t remember the love interest in Nine Coaches Waiting; I thought the dolphin rescue was in The Moon-spinners, not This Rough Magic; and so on. As I moved on to Thunder on the Right, I had only vague memory that it was not one of my favorites of the Stewarts, but as I started rereading the story, I wasn’t certain than I had ever read it before. Surely I would have remembered the convent in the Pyrenees, in the Valley of Storms? The handsome young man with his three horses, and his love for the orphan girl, Celeste? But as I read on, there was nothing at all familiar about this book, and I began to suspect that it was, in fact, one of the Stewarts I’d not read when I was a teenager and went through my Stewart phase (I had not read My Brother Michael, which I remedied a few years ago, nor Thornyhold or Rose Cottage nor Wildfire at Midnight.)
And even now that I’ve finished, I’m still not sure that I’d read it before.
The Hôtel du Pimené, Gavarnie, takes its name from the great peak of the High Pyrenees in whose shadow, at early morning, it lies. Beyond the palisade of trees shading its front courtyard runs the road from Lourdes; behind the hotel and below it, in a gorge of the rock on which it is built, roars and tumbled the River Gave-de-Pau, on its way from the high corrie of the Cirque to the slow winding courses of the Low Pyrenees. The dining room window give on to this little gorge, so that anyone sitting at table may look straight down on to the damp slabs of the bridge that leas to the skirts of the Pic du Pimené.
At one of these windows, on a blazing fifth of July, sat Miss Jennifer Silver, aged twenty-two, eating an excellent lunch. This was not her first visit to France, and she was savoring that heady sense of rediscovery which that country wakes perpetually in her lovers. And the little dining-room, with its chattering cosmopolitan crowd, its exotic smell of good food and wine, and the staggering view from its windows, presented a cry quite astonishingly far from Oxford, which was Jennifer’s home…Perhaps, however, not such a very far cry at all; for, from the next table, where sat two middle-aged women, tweeded and brogued in defiance of the lovely Southern morning, came snatches of a conversation which smacked decidedly of the newer alchemy.
“My dear Miss Moon,”–a morsel of truite maison, exquisitely cooked, waved in admonition at the end of a fork–gravity separation of light and heavy constituents, as you know, is believed to be essential to the production of such banding. That shown by these particular rocks appears to be of the rhythmic type, the small-scale rhythmic type.”
“I quite agree with you, Miss Shell-Pratt.” Miss Moon dug into her trout with the dogged efficiency and artistic appreciation of a bull-dozer. “Indeed, as Steinbascher and Blitzstein have it in their admirable Einfurüng in die Ursprünge der Magmatiten durch Differenziationen, the troctolites…”
And so we are introduced to our heroine, Jennifer Silver of Oxford, who has come to the south of France on holiday, to meet her cousin Gillian. She also runs into Stephen, a young war veteran who has feelings for her, but she’s not aware of them–he’s followed her to the south of France, on business of his own–and soon she is making her way up to the convent, where her cousin was going to be visiting and had invited her to join. Gillian had also hinted in her letter that she herself might be joining the convent–Our Lady of the Storms–and Jennifer wants to prevent that from happening. She’s not seen Gillian in a number of years, and is anxious to meet her again. But upon her arrival at the convent she is greeted by the news that Gillian is actually dead; she was in a car accident on her way to the convent during a storm, became ill, and died after a few weeks. Jennifer doesn’t take the news well–and the nun who tells her turns out not to actually be a sister, but rather someone who lives at the convent and works as the bursar. None of this sits well with Jennifer, who is suspicious of the woman and her accounts of Gillian’s final days.
This is a perfectly fine book–Stewart’s descriptive flair is on incredible display here; the sequence where Jenny is rushing through the mountains in an attempt to stop the killer from claiming another victim in the dark of the night is particularly exquisitely rendered; the waterfall and the rain and the small natural rock bridge sequence should be taught in writing classes as an example of how to write suspense so tense the reader practically has to hold their breath in anticipation. But I think this is a lesser Mary Stewart (but a lesser Mary Stewart is inevitably better than the best books by a lesser writer), and I think the fault lies in her decision to not use the first person. The stronger Stewart books take us right into the head of the main character and we see everything they see; the big trademark twist that comes about halfway through the book might not work as well in the first person as it did in the third, perhaps, but I still see this as the book’s biggest flaw. To make matters worse, there are some scenes between Jenny and her love interest, Stephen, in which the point of view switches from Jenny to Stephen and back again–it works for the most part because Stewart is so good at her craft, but at the same time it’s a little jarring and broke the spell of the story for me.
I also think if you start your Mary Stewart journey with Thunder on the Right you might not go back and read the others. Then again, you might; perhaps I am judging the book too harshly for not being as good as the others because I know how much better the others are. As far as I can remember, this is the only Stewart that is written in the third person, at least that I can recall; maybe that’s why it’s so jarringly different from the others. But all the hallmarks of a Stewart novel are there: the headstrong, determined young female lead who against all advice and common sense knows she is right that something is wrong at the convent and is determined to find out what that is; the stumbling into something much more sinister than it appears at first; and of course, a lengthy, epic scene of racing against the clock to save someone–used particularly well in Nine Coaches Waiting.
I think perhaps the next Stewart I will reread will undoubtedly be Madam Will You Talk?, also a favorite. (I learned, ironically, how to drive fast around corners and lengthy curves from reading this book.)