The Ivy Tree, Mary Stewart
Mary Stewart played me like a violin with this book. Not once but twice did she pull the rug out from under me, and each time I sat there with my mouth open, thinking "Wait, what?" And then I started furiously turning pages back - all the way to the beginning at one point. In fact, I think I spent more time reading backwards than I did forwards.
Just in case I'm not the last person to read this book, there will be spoilers below.
On a June morning in Northumberland, Mary Grey encounters an angry young man, Con Winslow. He insists that she is his cousin Annabel Winslow, who left their family home of Whitescar eight years ago. He accuses her of returning to claim her share of the estate, with her grandfather's health failing. Mary finally convinces him that she is not his cousin, but a stranger recently arrived from Canada. A few days later, a woman turns up at the café where Mary works, to sit and watch her. Eventually the woman tracks Mary to her boarding house, where she introduces herself as Con's sister Lisa. She makes a startling proposition: that Mary should impersonate Annabel long enough to help Con secure the estate against the third heir, his cousin Julie. Mary eventually agrees, in return for a regular stipend, future financial security.
It was seeing reviews of this book a couple of years ago that got me interested in Mary Stewart's suspense novels (I had read only her Merlin books). I often saw it compared to Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar, a book I love. With Tey's story, we know from the start that Brat is an impostor, masquerading as Patrick Ashby, who disappeared when he was 13. With that story in mind, I took it for granted that Mary is just who she says she is. I even chuckled over Stewart's cleverness in incorporating Brat Farrar into her story. Lisa, Con's sister, takes it as her guidebook in training Mary for her role. Remembering the ending of the book, I wondered what had happened to the real Annabel, and I kept a sharp eye on Con, the most obvious suspect.
I also took it for granted - and perhaps for authorial license - that Mary learns so quickly and so well from Lisa, that she plays her part as Annabel without a single slip. I admired the way that she leads people on to talk, gathering information from them and covering gaps in her own, as when the housekeeper Mrs Bates tells her of the night Annabel left Whitescar. I admired the cleverness, but I found myself not liking Mary much. It seemed a shabby thing to do, with Annabel's grandfather so frail, gruffly welcoming back his prodigal; and even worse to be doing it for money. It didn't bother me when Linda in Nine Coaches Waiting lied about her background, but this felt worse. I started to wonder if Mary Stewart had actually created an unsympathetic central character, for a change!
Annabel's cousin Julie arrives half-way through the book, and that's when things went all cattywompus for me. At first I thought her Scots friend Donald, quiet and charming, might be the hero I'd been half-expecting (if he'd had a small son, that would have clinched it). But then Julie drops the bombshell of Annabel's affair with a married neighbor, Adam Forrest, and all kinds of things I thought I knew about her were suddenly not true. I started reading back, looking for clues about Adam. Events begin to move so quickly after that, as Mary meets Adam and confesses to him that she isn't Annabel. Then Julie is attacked, and in the aftermath of that, Mary confesses to Adam that she is Annabel. At that point, I actually thought she was lying to him. It was a few pages on that I realized she had told the truth, which sent me frantically paging back yet again and trying to work out the story in my mind. I drove to work that morning in a fog, thinking of Annabel and Adam rather than the other cars on the road with me.
Running through all of this, and adding to the turmoil, is the frail health of Annabel and Julie's grandfather, and the constant question of how he will leave his property and his money. After all, that is what led Con to recruit Mary in the first place: to secure the estate for himself. It is clear from the start that Con will do almost anything to ensure that happens. Instead, in an ironic twist, he is killed, his death following close on his great-uncle's. As the story closes, Annabel seems to have inherited Whitescar, but I don't understand how, since she can't be Con's heir. It's a small point, but it bothers me. Perhaps her grandfather made her the residual heir? We never actually hear what's in his will. He just likes to hint a lot, which in mystery stories can get a person killed.
I have to mention one other quibble with the ending: when Julie finds the letter that Annabel wrote Adam eight years ago, where Julie herself put it in the old oak tree. When Annabel learns earlier in the story that Adam never received the letter, she worries that his wife Crystal had gotten it and discovered their affair. She tells him that this will always be between them, that they can never be together now. And then at the very end, like magic, the letter turns up safe. I think it is unnecessary, when Adam and Annabel have already made their peace, in the stable after the accidents, "when both of us had to be driven to the very edge of loss, before we could accept the mercy that had saved us and allowed us to begin again . . ." (and that, by the bye, reminded me very much of Lymond and Philippa, when he comes riding to Flaw Valleys, at the end of Checkmate).
Still, quibbles aside, I thought this was an amazing, marvelous book, the best of Mary Stewart's that I have read so far. And I may still re-read it all from the start, to watch how she fits the different layers of her plot together, and to see where she so neatly and easily led me up the garden path.