Friday, June 14, 2013

An interrupted holiday in Provence

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.


  1. The violence was quite off, wasn't it? That was the only thing that kept me from mindlessly loving this book - and I did love it a lot. I wish I looked like that in hot weather!

  2. I'm on the fence about Mary Stewart (like, not love) but I'm intrigued by your Arsene Lupin omnibus -- and Paris in July beckons! Hmmmm....

  3. vicki, I know it's a staple in romantic fiction, especially the Gothics - I'm just not comfortable with it.

    Audrey, I hadn't heard of Arsene Lupin before coming across this (also at Half Price Books). Another gentleman rogue, and maybe my favorite yet. At the rate I'm reading, though, I'll still qualify for Paris in July!

  4. I agree about the domineering heroes, but I do love Stewart's settings. I will forever wish I could transport myself into This Rough Magic.

  5. elizabeth, that's the second book that I bought! Now I'm really looking forward to it.

  6. I'm glad you liked this one! It is my second favorite of the ones I've read so far. All of her novels have very protracted, detailed struggles at the end - kind of tedious, but it is a hallmark of her novels. The settings are magnificent in all of them, too. She has such a gift for bringing the settings to life.

  7. I haven't read this one yet but I'm looking forward to it. I still haven't found another Mary Stewart novel I love as much as Nine Coaches Waiting, which was the first one I read...maybe this will be it!

  8. I read Mary Stewart's books years ago and the Merlin series is also my favourite. Looking forward to rereading one or two of her others in September.

  9. I can but agree. I loved the setting, but the same things that jarred for you jarred for me. She ironed some of the kinks out a little in later books, and then I could get sufficiently caught up to forgive some small weaknesses.

  10. Thanks for the mention. I read this one way back in the 1970s so it's due a reread. Her Merlin series is my favourite by far though.

  11. I read Mary Stewart back in the 60's and remember nothing about her books except I really enjoyed them then. I really should revisit her again because I do still see her books in the library. Enjoyed this review.

  12. Anbolyn, she has such intriguing settings for her books. I liked how she brought information & description in, without letting the setting overwhelm the story. Of course her vivid characters help with that.

    Helen, I'll be keeping an eye out for Nine Coaches! Like Barbara Pym, there are so many to choose from.

    Cat, I want to re-read the Merlin books now. It will be interesting to compare them with her contemporary stories.

    Jane, I can see that, this being her first book. I don't know enough about her background to know how she came to writing - but she was probably still working things out.

    Katrina, you mentioned a fifth Merlin book on your blog - I have some catching up to do there! I love Merlin, and Ambrosius even more.

    Pam, she had such a range of books over her long career - I'm looking forward to exploring her work. I'll have to check the library, though I know I haven't seen the new editions.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!