This Rough Magic - Mary Stewart

First published in 1964, this novel is set on the Greek island of Corfu, where out-of-work English actress Lucy Waring goes to stay with her sister, whose wealthy husband’s family owns an estate on the island. There she becomes embroiled in a mystery involving reclusive actor Sir Julian Gale, his brusque son Max, photographer Godfrey Manning, diverse islanders , a cute cat and a very appealing dolphin.

The title is a quote from Act V Scene I of Shakespeare’s [b:The Tempest|12985|The Tempest|William Shakespeare||1359590]. Prospero decides to give up sorcery, saying:

To the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure.

Stewart connects the novel to Shakespeare’s play in a variety of ways: Lucy’s sister refers to her unborn child as Caliban (a bit cruel, I thought), Sir Julian Gale expounds on his theory that Corfu is the island on which the play is set, his son Max is composing the score for a film adaptation of the play, a young Greek brother and sister are named Miranda and Spiro (sounds like Prospero!) and each chapter starts with a quote from the play. I assumed that Stewart was going somewhere with this. But she wasn’t heading anywhere in particular, which was disappointing. There are no usurpers, no magic and not even a storm.

Even though the promised connection to “The Tempest” was a fizzer, the novel nevertheless has some nice features. Stewart is great at setting a scene and her descriptions of Corfu are enticing enough to make me wish I could head there for a few weeks by the sea. She writes good dialogue and her heroine has a nice line in self-deprecating humour. The last few chapters were suspenseful enough for me to read them in one sitting and the ending was fun, if rather chaotic and implausible.

Stewart’s writing is dated. Some of this adds charm to the work, such as what seems to be an excessive interest in the quick-drying properties of nylon underwear. Some of it is less charming and simply dated. For example, Lucy’s pregnant sister downs a scotch and suggests that she wouldn’t mind if her husband beat her when he found out that she had lost a diamond ring. Aspects of the work that prompted some eye rolling include the heroine falling in love within a matter of minutes with someone she had previously disliked and the villain confessing all the details of his villainy to someone he intended to kill, a device which drives me nuts when it happens in crime fiction.

I would probably have liked this novel a lot more had I been a fan of Mary Stewart when I was in my teens or twenties, as there’s something so comforting about going back to favourite author. As it is, the whole romantic suspense genre passed me by. While there’s quite a bit I like about Stewart’s writing and I’ll probably read more of it, she’s not destined to become one of my favourite authors. That said, I had lots of fun participating in the buddy read of this novel with members of the Mary Stewart Group.