Mary Stewart, In Fond Memory

Mary Stewart, the extremely successful writer of romantic suspense, has died at the age of 98. 

I scrolled back through the hundreds and hundreds of reviews of her books on Goodreads and Amazon. This is impressive since all of these books were written decades before the Internet and when computers were housed in specially built warehouses. Most of the reviews were three stars and above but I noticed a few comments about how unoriginal the stories were. People, please! She invented the genre. That’s like reading Mary Shelley and complaining about how unoriginal her monster is.

Besides romantic suspense she also wrote stories based on the legend of Arthur. The Crystal Cave, the first of these, is one of my favorites but I never loved those books as I loved the romances. Those were the ones I read over and over, and they were the ones I carried about with me throughout my life as souvenirs of my younger self. The somewhat fuzzy picture above shows the ones that have survived; the paperback of My Brother Michael at the lower right is the original 1960 paperback edition. I bought it new.

I was tremendously romantic as a teenager and these books had it all: handsome strangers, mysteries, exotic locations (which I defined as ‘anywhere not New Jersey’) and intelligent heroines who ended up with the hero at the end. They were also, and I give myself points for recognizing this at the time, much better written than all the clone knockoffs who copied her. The descriptions, particularly of Greece, were so evocative I can still recall the scene by the dusty Greek roadside in The Moon-Spinners when Nicola gets off the bus and decides to follow the kingfisher up the path.

Time has moved on for me (and it would be bloody surprising if it hadn’t!) so the books I loved most as a teenager are not the ones I appreciate most now. My favorite, hands down, used to be Nine Coaches Waiting. Unfortunately, Jo Walton’s Suck Fairy has paid the plot a visit: it’s a bit depressing now to have the hero solve all the heroine’s financial problems by saving her by marriage, and the Cinderella ball scene is a bit over the top. To be fair, the heroine calls the reader’s attention to it, and there’s a touch of parody in the entire plot. I can see a reread in my immediate future—as soon as I can get my hands on a copy since mine has vanished for the fourth or fifth time. These are available in ebook, but somehow I can’t, just can’t, read her in that format.

My favorite now, and the favorite of a great many of her readers, is The Ivy Tree. This is beautifully written and set in the author’s Scotland by Hadrian’s Wall. Stewart’s command of the plot details is complete and even when you know what the twist is, you admire how she pulls it off. I still, and this is going on for fifty years ago, remember my astonishment at the denouement. The heroine is terrifyingly intelligent and all the supporting characters are fully realized, although the villain is a bit cardboard. If you haven’t read this, you’re missing something.

So suspend a little disbelief and a few feminist principles and read Mary Stewart. She will always be worth it.


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Mary Holland

Mary Holland writes alternative-world fantasy for grown-ups. Her books include Matcher Rules, The Bone Road, and The Dog of Pel. She lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with three cats and an ever-changing assortment of wildlife.

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