Still in search of books with happy endings, I turned next to Mary Stewart. I had started This Rough Magic a couple of times before, knowing it's a favorite with many people, but the story didn't hold my attention past the first chapter. I find that happening a lot with books lately - I end up starting some of them at least three times before I really settle in with the story. I know some first chapters almost by heart at this point.
From my false starts with this book, I remembered that it is set on the Greek island of Corfu. Lucy Marling, a young actress whose first London play just folded, has escaped grey rainy England to stay with her sister Phyllida Forli in a seaside villa. Phyllida is married to a Roman banker whose family owns not just the villa, but the original estate, including a castello of fantastic design. Lucy is astonished to learn that the castello is presently leased to Sir Julian Gale, "one of the more brilliant lights of the London theatre for more years than [she] can remember." She has wonderful memories of seeing him play Prospero, in a production of The Tempest at Stratford. He has developed a novel theory that Corfu is actually Prospero's island of exile, and allusions to the play run through the story. Staying with Sir Julian is his son Max, a composer. The Forlis have another tenant and neighbor, Godfrey Manning, a writer and photographer. Godfrey has hired a young man, Spiro, to help with the photography and running his boat. Spiro's mother and sister Miranda work for Phyllida. After an accident at sea, Godfrey turns to her to help him break the news that Spiro was lost overboard. His body has not been found when another young man's washes up in their secluded bay. What looks like an accident may be disguising a murder - and perhaps not the only one.
There was so much to enjoy in this book, starting with the setting. I have been googling pictures of Corfu and wondering how I can manage a trip there. (I confess with some embarrassment that, as many times as I've read My Family and Other Animals, this was the first time I have looked Corfu up in maps and pictures, and really understood where it is.) Lucy is an engaging narrator, and I liked her comfortable sisterly relationship with Phyllida. I think this is the first of Mary Stewart's heroines that I have met with a sister; so many of them are on their own, with only distant relations. I was fairly sure from the start who the hero of the story was going to be, and who the villain, and I enjoyed watching that play out. And of course there is the dolphin, a regular visitor to the bay who features in Manning's photographs. He is the means of introducing Lucy to the Gales, and when she finds him mysteriously beached in the bay, Max helps her rescue him. What is it about dolphins? Like baby elephants, they are just irresistible.
The story here is certainly an exciting one, with the tension building right up to the last pages and an explosive conclusion. I don't know that I could pick just one favorite about Mary Stewart's books, but this would certainly be in top three or four (with The Ivy Tree, My Brother Michael and Nine Coaches Waiting).
The constant references to The Tempest intrigued me. I was fortunate to see a production in Stratford myself, with the great John Wood playing Prospero. But that was almost thirty years ago now, and I remembered very little from the play. I had never read it, so when I had a day off from work on Tuesday, I stopped in at Half Price Books and found a good used copy. I started reading it that afternoon. I sometimes struggle with Shakespeare's language and with the twists of the plot (Twelfth Night is a complete mystery to me). I found The Tempest very easy to read, so much that I was surprised to find myself in the final scenes almost before I knew it. I can't help thinking that Prospero should prudently hold off on breaking his staff and drowning his book. After all, he is leaving his island with the men who engineered his exile in the first place, not to mention another one who had just agreed to assassinate his own brother.