Madam, Will You Talk? Mary Stewart
When I think of Mary Stewart, I think of her Merlin series, particularly of The Crystal Cave, my favorite. I can't remember how old I was when I first read these books, but her Merlin Emrys is my Merlin. No others need apply. Though I've read a couple of her contemporary stories, I really have no memory of them, other than the entries in my reading diary. Then last year I began seeing posts about her books on some of my favorite blogs, like Anbolyn's, Helen's and Katrina's. They convinced me that I have been missing out on some wonderful stories. And the gloriously bright and retro covers on the new Hodder editions made me want to run out and buy them all, just for the pleasure of admiring them on my shelves.
But as happens too often, I got distracted by other things. So it was a pleasant shock last Sunday to come across a whole shelf of Mary Stewart's books, in the Hodder editions, at Half Price Books. I didn't in fact buy them all, in part because I'd also found a Barbara Pym (Less Than Angels) and an Eva Ibbotson (Magic Flutes). I virtuously restricted myself to two (while reserving the right to come back the following weekend for more). I chose Madam, Will You Talk? from the back-cover blurb:
It sounds idyllic: a leisurely drive through the sun-drenched landscape of Provence. But Charity's dream holiday turns into a nightmare as she becomes embroiled in a murder attempt . . . and she finds herself falling in love with the suspected murderer.
I didn't realize until later that this was Stewart's first novel, published in 1955. What a wonderful way to begin! I enjoyed this book so much. While I had a pretty good idea where the story was heading, some of the plot twists still took me by surprise. I took to Charity Selborne, the narrator, straight off, even before she informed us, "I get on well with cats. As you will find, I have a lot in common with them, and with the Elephant's Child." As the book opens, she has just arrived in Avignon with her friend Louise, whom she has invited to join her for a two-week holiday in Provence. Louise is an artist as well as an art teacher, but she is much less interested in playing tourist than Charity is. Charity makes friends with a boy, David Shelley, staying at the same hotel with his stepmother. From another guest, she learns of a tragedy involving David and his father, and realizes why he seems so unhappy and isolated. She invites him to join her on a day trip from Avignon to Nîmes. There they meet someone from David's past, who thinks Charity his keeper. Soon she finds herself in a desperate race to Marseilles and then out of it, trying to shield David while unraveling the truth of the family's tragedy.
As much as the characters, I loved the setting: Provence, baking in the summer sun (much like Houston these days), the towns with their Roman ruins and their cheerful crowds. Then there is Marseilles,
sliced in two by the straight line of the Canebière, the busiest street in Europe, where, sooner or later, all the world passed by. It was said that if you sat in the Canebière long enough, you would see passing by you every soul that you knew.
And in the harbor at Marseilles, the Château d'Ilf. Charity, a bit distracted on her visit there, doesn't mention the Count of Monte Cristo, though I'm sure the tour guides do.
I could perhaps have done with a little less description of the long drives, even the white-knuckled chases. And I confess that I prefer my heroes less domineering and prone to violence (however great the provocation). These are mere quibbles, however. This book was another perfect summer read, and a great antidote for a not-so-great week. I'm looking forward to more Mary Stewart, including a reading week that Anbolyn is organizing.