on 2 December 2003
Almost half a century after Mary Stewart first wrote Nine Coaches Waiting, this book remains a timeless classic--beautifully written, hauntingly evocative, full of charm, wit, suspense and romance. Most of the action takes place in a chateau in France's Savoy region, near Switzerland. Lonely young Linda Martin, a half-French/half-English orphan, comes to the chateau to act as governess to nine-year-old Philippe, himself a lonely orphan. Soon accidents start happening to Philippe, and Linda suspects that someone may mean him harm. She has to protect him, without knowing herself whom she can trust. But no plot synopsis can do this wonderful novel justice; this is a masterpiece from one of the most gifted storytellers of the 20th century.
This was the first Mary Stewart novel I ever read way back when.It had either been a Woman's Hour reading or a serial and I found a copy in a second hand shop. It was one of the first grown up books I had read and seemed to me to be the last word in sophistication. Although I have revisited it, I haven't read it for many years.
What a delight! It is, I suppose, a little dated in some of its attitudes, but the strength of the story and the characterization easily outweigh these minor flaws. It has all the ingredients of a true romance: a feisty heroine of strong principles emerging from poverty; a child for her to protect; a wildly romantic chateau as a setting; a diabolically charming chief villain; and two possible heroes, one strong, blond, noble Englishman and a dark saturnine Frenchman who may or may not be as devilish as his father.These may sound like stereotypes, I would say rather that they are the prototypes on which most characters of modern romances have been based, but unlike most prototypes they are fully developed and engaging.
I have now decided to reread all Mary Stewart's books. It was so pleasing to read a well made story that was literate and educated without being pretentious.
If you have not read any of her books you have such a treat in store!
on 13 May 2011
It's many years since I last read this book. I've read it at least twice, and I wish I didn't remember it so clearly, so that I could have the pleasure of re-discovering it.
It's so compelling that I found it hard to get anything else done while reading it. The heroine is likeable, brave and inquisitive with just a little touch of melancholy and naivety to make her all the more endearing. As a genre, Romance meets Thriller as only Mary Stewart knows how, and neither is compromised.
Linda, a bilingual from birth French/English girl, arrives in France to take up the post of governess to a lonely orphan. She has to hide the fact that she is half French and speaks the language fluently in order to meet the conditions of her employment. Before long, what seems like her employer's innocent preference for an English girl wears an altogether more sinister cloak, and the child's wheelchair bound guardian starts to send shivers down the spines of both protagonist and reader. As the narrative progresses and the tension grows, it becomes more and more obvious that both Linda and her young charge are in terrible danger.
Read and enjoy.
A wonderful offering from one of my favourite authors. Linda Martin's carefree life in Paris comes to an abrupt end at fourteen when her French mother and English father are killed in a plane crash. After nine unhappy years in a London orphanage, she lands a job in a private boys school but in her heart she still hankers to return to France. When she is offered the position of governess to a nine-year-old recently orphaned boy in the Savoy region, she jumps at the opportunity. For the first few weeks, life at the palatial Chateau de Valmy is like a dream come true: Linda quickly bonds with Philippe, the sad and sickly little boy with whom she identifies so strongly but dealing with her aristocratic employers is more challenging. The Countess is polite but chilly while her husband, the handsome Leon de Valmy, patrols the house and grounds in his unnervingly quiet wheelchair and sets a tense mood with his overbearing personality. A sudden visit from the son of the house complicates Linda's situation as she falls for him like a ton of bricks. Then a series of accidents involving the young boy breaks the spell and sets in motion a breathtaking chain of events that forces Linda to question her loyalties and tests her character to the utmost.
In her usual style, Lady Stewart sets the scene, plants clues, turns the tables and unleashes a thrilling chase that keeps the reader guessing and counter-guessing to the very end. There are literary references to the classic Cinderella story, Jane Eyre and Macbeth among others, and a good dollop of humour especially contrasting English and French attitudes. On a more sinister note, the devastating effects of gossip and malicious intrigue contribute to the mounting pressures that drive the second part of the story. This is actually one of the most romantic of Mary Stewart's novels featuring a very beautiful but self-effacing heroine (whose hard life has not entirely crushed her adventurous spirit) and a quintessentially smouldering hero who hilariously gets hot under the collar whenever the love interest is around.
All of Mary Stewart's hallmarks are present: the exquisite prose, perfectly-judged descriptions of locations and events, believable dialogue, unforgettable characters (there are many secondary players here that really come to life with their little quirks and an almost physical presence) and, of course, a fast-moving enthralling plot.
I have just re-read this novel for the third time and, even knowing the end, found it compelling and thoroughly engaging. As always with this author, the story works on different levels. A page-turner the first time around, but even more enjoyable on subsequent readings. The elegance of the writing cannot be overstated.
Now I am not, in the general run of things, a reader of the Romance genre. Not unless there is a lot more going on than just the simple story of boy/girl meets boy/girl, there is some sort of problem, there may also be some sort of rival boy/girl and the main couple will/will not surmount the obstacle and live happily ever after/die a horrible death.
In fact, it has to be said I infinitely (in literature!) prefer the tragic end/star crossed lovers scenario than the Hollywood, sunset, hearts, flowers, wedding bells wrap. Unless skilfully done, with lots more going on (yes, that's you, Jane Austen, incomparable writer of fine romance and much more) the genre leads to a sugar overload which might predispose regular readers to diabetes.
So, it is no wonder that I never encountered Mary Stewart, as she does belong firmly on the Romance shelf - and, but, and, but I would therefore never have ventured there - till my interest was piqued by a book blogger who likes the same sort of lit-ficcy stuff I do, and for very similar reasons. She was praising Stewart to the skies. So I asked her to recommend one. And this is it.
Now, for sure this sits firmly within the genre, in that there is a man and a woman who will meet, there are problems ahead, there is indeed some possible rival and there will be/or not some resolution of satisfaction or dissatisfaction for our central characters (and no, I shan't tell, you'll have to read the book if you really want to know) Suffice it to be said though that Mary Stewart, now having some of her work re-issued in the `Modern Classic' category, was a prolific writer of Gothic romance-thrillers. Oh, and 'Gothic' is not used in the twenty first century sense to mean that you are going to be unpleasantly surprised to find a job lot of vampires werewolves zombies and ghosts have somehow got trapped within the pages. Think, more, the idea of dark secrets, high drama, possibly an isolated setting, or the idea of all this in the mind of our doughty probably female protagonist. She writes with a history which happily acknowledges `Gothic' in the sense of Austen's Northanger Abbey, or, even more pertinently for THIS book, Jane Eyre, rather than Hammer Horror Central Casting. The Gothic is very real and very human.
I was hooked from page one to page-the-end. There is indeed a dark thriller, we have men tall, dark, handsome, charismatic and probably not to be trusted. It is the 1950s. Our central character , Linda Martin. (shades of Jane Eyre, which even she acknowledges, as she is a well-read young woman) is an orphan, whose parents died when she was young. She spent the second half of her childhood in an orphanage, and then, as a young assistant in a dreary school. Chance comes Linda's way to become a governess (hello Jane!) to a little boy, scion of a family with a dark past and a probably darker future, deep in the French countryside. The family have a slightly different version of Mr Rochester on board. For reasons which are perfectly intelligent Linda, who is half-French (French mother, English father) and who lived in France until her parents' death pretends that she speaks very little French and understands even less - the employer was strict in their requirement for an ENGLISH governess as they wanted the boy spoken to only in English - though there may be other reasons for this. Linda's hiding of her perfect French and her French ancestry gives rise to a lot of intentional humour for the reader. Linda is a most attractive heroine, given to self-mockery, and is someone who rather enjoys winding up the bad-tempered people she meets with deliberate mangling of `Franglais' to annoy.
There are apposite little quotes, often from Shakespeare, as sub-chapter headings - our heroine/narrator, as stated earlier, is a reader.
Stewart is a wonderful writer - and particularly, a wonderful evoker of landscape. As I did some exploration into her life and works, I was utterly unsurprised to find she was a passionate gardener. Anyone who can so beautifully and evocatively describe plants, trees, skies, light and the scents, sights and sounds of the natural world is someone who has spent loving time within that world.
And, just like Miss Austen and Miss Bronte, Miss Stewart comes from a time when what is undoubtedly sex and desire is rendered much more potent for the fact it is not laid out for us. She is much more interested in exploring the subtle workings of the human psyche, than the rather more prosaic exploration of removed garments and anatomical diagram!
And, suffice it to say I have now downloaded Stewart's My Brother Michael, also highly praised, and will be skulking the Romance shelves of my local library to find more by this fine author.
on 25 September 2009
I have loved this book for thirty years, ever since I first read it as a teenager. It is the best of Mary Stewart's beautifully written, highly literate thriller romances, though appears to be less well known (perhaps because the title makes it sound like a senior citizens' outing to Skegness). It partially reframes the story of Jane Eyre (with echoes of Cinderella thrown in as well) now set in a chateau in 'modern-day' (1958) France. Employed as a governess by an aristocratic French couple, orphaned half-English/half-French Linda Martin leaves England to look after their 9-year-old nephew, Philippe (also orphaned, but unlike Linda, wealthy and therefore vulnerable). Reduced to its outline the plot would come across as melodramatic but as always Mary Stewart manages to make it convincingly thrilling. And in Raoul de Valmy she has created the best modern-day Mr Rochester. The sexual tension and romantic uncertainty between Raoul and Linda is brilliantly conveyed and kept wound tight until the very end.