Nine Coaches Waiting, Mary Stewart
I've been keeping an eye out for this book since Helen commented that it is her favorite of Mary Stewart's. When I came across a copy at Half Price Books the other day, I put it on the top of the reading stack. I'm anticipating Anbolyn's Mary Stewart Reading Week in September, but then I do still have four more of her books on the TBR shelves.
I started this book really with a clean slate. For once the cover blurb gave very little away (and that little wasn't completely accurate). Perhaps because I'm a loyal reader (and re-reader) of favorite authors, and often of series, new books can sometimes feel familiar. It's not that an author can't surprise me, but there is an awareness that comes with continuing characters, a well-known setting, or even writing style and word choice. That is all missing of course with a new-to-me author, one whose work I'm just discovering. This is only the second of Mary Stewart's suspense novels that I've read (the first was Madam, Will You Talk?). So while I thought I had worked some things out, spotted the hero and so on, I was actually falling for a couple of red herrings. I had a whole alternative story line worked out in my mind - one that did not end well. I admit that eventually the suspense got the best of me and I turned to the last page, just to see what happened. As I've mentioned before, I am generally bad about working out mysteries anyway.
The heroine of this book is Linda Martin, just arrived in Paris to take up a position as governess to Philippe de Valmy, the nine-year-old Comte de Valmy. Recently orphaned, after his parents died he was taken from his home in Paris to the Valmy estate in the Haute-Savoie, under the care of his uncles Léon and Hippolyte. Léon and his wife Héloïse live at the Château Valmy, where he has managed the estate for many years. It was Héloïse who traveled to London to engage an English governess, a replacement for a suddenly-departed nurse. Linda, understanding that the Valmys particularly want an English governess, has not told her new employer that she herself was raised in France, the child of an English father and a French mother, and that she is a native French speaker. Ten years in England, first in an orphanage and then working at a prep school, have made her English on the surface, but her past is never far below.
When she arrives at the Château Valmy, she is charmed by the beauty of Haute-Savoie (I've had lots of fun googling maps and pictures). She falls under the difficult charm of Léon de Valmy, a paraplegic from a polo injury. She feels a different connection to her charge, a sad and peaked boy, who is terrified of his uncle and distant with his aunt. As with Madam, Will You Talk, the heroine is drawn into helping a scared, lonely little boy, becoming his protector and advocate, gradually coming to suspect that all is not well in the Valmy family, and that her charge may be in danger. Of course the settings could not be more different, from the heat of a Provençal summer to a lovely cool spring further north. Stewart does excel at settings! There is another important difference in the heroines' situations: unlike Charity Selborne, Linda is not a free agent. She has no car, and no money beyond her small salary, she is dependent on the Valmys.
I won't say too much more about the plot, in case I am not the last to read this. I did enjoy it very much, reading breathlessly along, waiting to see if my suspicions were correct (mostly, they weren't). I thought the ending was very well done, bringing everything together in a neat solution, one that brings happiness to the deserving and just punishment to the wicked (though one villain escapes). One line on the last page struck me: "Later, when we could admit between us the commonplace of laughter . . . " It reminded me, as so much does, of Dorothy Dunnett: late in Checkmate, when Philippa "realized that laughter, which they had lost, had come back to them, and they were whole again." At least in the two novels that I've read, Stewart like Dunnett creates interesting, complicated characters, putting them into difficult and dangerous situations that require ingenuity, intelligence, endurance - not to mention trust and love - to resolve.