Very mild spoilers ahead.
This was my first experience of Mary Stewart. I gather she was a bit of a phenomenon in the 1970s, but the idea of romantic suspense must not have appealed to me at that time. The incentive to read this particular novel was an extended buddy read and the fact that the novel is set in the south of France, where I’ll be spending a couple of weeks in March this year.
The novel was first published in 1955 and it shows. It has a dated quality with more references to smoking than I would have thought possible to include in a 360 page paperback. However, it’s not just the smoking that screams 1950s. The drinks the characters consume, the cars they drive, the way in which the cars are driven and the makeup and the nylon (yes, nylon!) nightie worn by the heroine are also a giveaway. Not that this is a bad thing. As others among my buddy read companions have noted, the novel calls to mind a 1950s film: glamorous characters driving fast cars while engaging in a spot of intrigue in a beautiful location.
Mary Stewart could write great prose. I love her descriptions of Avignon, Nîmes, Arles, Les Baux and Marseille – she really makes the locations come to life. In addition, the characters are fun, albeit somewhat stereotypical. However, while it has its twists, the narrative is predictable, at least in broad outline. It is, for example, easy to pick the hero quite early in the piece. In relation to the hero, it occurred to me that Stewart may have been inspired by Georgette Heyer when she created him. He is the type Heyer described as Mark I: “the brusque, savage sort with a foul temper.” In time-honoured 1950s style, he and the heroine fall in love quite quickly. Plausible? Maybe not, but on the other hand, what was all that racing around for if not a prelude to courtship?
All in all, this was an enjoyable read. A long way from the best novel I’ve ever read, but great fun to share with Jemidar, Jeannette, Hannah, Misfit, Laura, Willowfaerie, Leslie, Kim, Joanne, Marg, SarahC and possibly others, most if not all of whom finished reading the book before I did. 3-1/2 stars.