Touch Not the Cat, Mary Stewart
Here we are in the second annual Mary Stewart Reading Week, hosted by Anbolyn of Gudrun's Tights. Though I have read the first two of Stewart's Merlin books to pieces over the years, I had only read one of her modern suspense novels, which did not inspire me to read more. But last year Anbolyn's posts about her books did, and I began collecting them. My favorite, far and away, has been The Ivy Tree (though Nine Coaches Waiting is also pretty amazing). I think The Ivy Tree has become the standard against which I measure her other books.
In choosing what to read for this week, I was spoiled for choice, with seven on the TBR stacks. I had originally planned to finish the Merlin trilogy with The Last Enchantment. But I've had Touch Not the Cat in mind ever since a poll about Mary Stewart's books suggested it as the perfect one for me (now I can't find the link to it). I was also encouraged by my friend Susan, a fellow Heyer and Wodehouse reader (among many other authors), who told me it is her favorite of Stewart's books. [Correction: it's third on her list, not her top favorite.] I was glad to hear that, because I had actually started this book once before and given up on it in the second chapter.
I had read nothing about this book, even the back cover of my tattered paperback, but the first line set the stage for the story that follows: "My lover came to me on the last night in April, with a message and a warning that sent me home to him." The speaker is Bryony Ashley. The message she receives concerns her father Jonathan, who has been the victim of a hit-and-run accident in Germany - which may not have been an accident. Bryony arrives too late to see him. She is left with the disconnected words he muttered in his last moments, about danger to her, and about papers and books and keys, and a cat. She takes those words and his ashes back to their home in England, Ashley Court, "a moated manor that was built piecemeal by a series of owners from the Saxons on, none of whom had heard of damp courses . . ." Due to an entail, the Court passes to the next male heir, her cousin Howard, whose three sons spent much of their childhood at the Court with Bryony's family. There is her father's estate to sort out, and her own future, as well as her unease over his death. Her cousins meanwhile have to decide what to do about the crumbling Court, which even the National Trust won't take on, despite its ancient history.
I found much to enjoy in this book, particularly after Bryony returns to England and settles again into life at the Court - starting with the cozy small cottage where she actually lives, the kind many of Stewart's heroines inherit. She meets old friends again, including the Vicar of the parish. And there is Rob Granger, the son of a local farmer, who grew up with the Ashley children and now works at the Court. It was fun to explore the Court, with its moat and maze and grand library. And I like mysteries that involve complicated family situations, with wills and entails and all-too-convenient deaths.
What did not work so well for me was Bryony's lover. Normally, I also enjoy supernatural elements to a story, as in Barbara Michaels' books. Here a strain of telepathy runs through the Ashley family, all the way back to an ancestress who was burned for a witch. All her life Bryony has had this link with someone, a man around her own age, with whom she shares "sudden blocks of intelligence that are thrust into one's mind and slotted and locked there . . ." She doesn't know who it is, though she suspects it is one of her Ashley cousins. He knows who she is, though. So I couldn't quite work out why she doesn't know who he is. She used to address him as "Boy" or "Ashley," but now calls him "Lover," because as they matured their connection has changed. "And if it seems absurd that one should need and offer love without knowing the body one offers it to, I suppose that unconsciously the body dictates a need which the mind supplies." Huh? That almost makes it sounds like her mind invented this lover! I was quite willing to take him on faith, so I found the various attempts to explain and define their connection confusing, unnecessary distractions. It didn't help that every time Bryony called him "Lover," I had this flash of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in "Dirty Dancing" ("How do you call your lover boy?") On the other hand, I identified the Lover long before Bryony did, even if I had to check ahead to be sure I was right.
This wasn't my favorite of Mary Stewart's books - I don't think it measures up to The Ivy Tree - but I have a feeling I will enjoy it more in the re-reading.
N.B. I am also counting this book in the R.I.P IX Challenge, as the first toward my goal of Peril the First.