I bought this book last year at a charity sale in aid of the reconstruction of a Thomas Telford church in Ullapool, Scotland. I have never read anything by Mary Stewart except her Merlin books, which I read and loved in high school and college, so I bought this to try her Gothic/romantic suspense writing. I pulled it out when Ms. Stewart died in May, and this month I was home enough to actually read a printed book.
I don’t really worry about spoilers for a book published 47 years ago, but I won’t give too many details. I went into the book knowing nothing about the plot, and that was definitely part of its charm. I will say that it’s a romance with a happy ending, though.
The novel takes place in the Middle East, mostly in Lebanon. Our protagonist is Christy Mansel, an English heiress whose family lives in the USA. She comes on a package tour, but plans to stay on in Beirut a few extra days on her own. While in Damascus with the tour, she encounters her cousin Charles, who is in the area on business but has also been hoping to see her. Charles reminds Christy that they have an eccentric great-aunt who lives near Beirut in an old palace, seeing herself as a modern version of Lady Hester Stanhope. They plan to visit her together, but when Charles is delayed by business, Christy finds herself visiting the palace alone.
The emir’s palace is a good, spooky setting. There are mysterious and suspicious events that make Christy (and later Charles) worried about their relative, and they get caught up in dangerous activities trying to figure it all out. While some elements of the mystery seemed really obvious to me, the book was still enjoyable to read. I gather this is a hallmark of Gothic novels, that they may have elements of self-parody and melodrama that make some aspects of the plot seem obvious.
Christy is a great narrator. She is smart and funny, and brave when she needs to be, but she’s also a bit vain, selfish and, as she herself says early in the book, “rather spoiled.” Her commentary on other people, as well as herself, brings the book to life. The descriptions of scenery and events are engrossing, and it’s to Stewart’s credit that her eloquent descriptions sound believable coming from Christy.
Who else has read non-Arthurian Stewart? What are your favorite titles?