Mary Stewart died this month at the age of 97. As the author credited for creating the romantic suspense genre she leaves behind a tremendous legacy in the world of books. Even though she hasn’t published since 1997, her novels are still being read and sold to this day. Among her most popular franchises is her Arthurian Legend series that begins with The Crystal Cave and ends with The Wicked Day. Those novels have a special place on my keeper shelf but it is her lovely, gothic suspense books that have always held the strongest place in my heart.
Back in my tween reading years I spent a lot of time with Ms. Stewart and her compatriots Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney. My grandmother had given us a large stack of their books (we got the rest from the library) most of which featured a young woman on the cover running from some medieval style stone structure in her nightgown. One can only assume the cover artists had no knowledge of the books since I can’t remember this scene happening in a single one of them. What I do remember is the bright, inquisitive heroines fighting for justice and falling in love along the way.
Stewart’s heroines especially were far from delicate violets. They travelled to amazing places like Greece and Vienna and the Canary Islands. They jumped right into adventures, they solved mysteries and they had harrowing brushes with death along the way. They were well written, intelligent women who knew how to deal with the problems life threw at them. I’ve read all her books and while I didn’t love them all I found them all to be easy, enjoyable reads. I was especially delighted when I was able to borrow a copy of the elusive (and expensive) The Wind Off the Small Isles in order to finish off her list. It’s a short tale about a find on the Canary Islands which is of value only to a handful of people. A bit different from her usual work but it did contain her trademark descriptions of the location.
That is where Ms. Stewart really stood out – her descriptions of the exotic places her heroines travelled. Her approach was unique; many writers wall paper their locales on, giving us mentions of a few important landmarks and then focusing on their story. Others write a travel brochure leaving you with the feeling that at some point you might want to visit. Stewart somehow made you feel like by reading the book you had visited; she captured the sights, sounds, scents. She didn’t just tell you about the major tourist attractions but took you down back alleys and through windmill filled fields to give you the full sense of the place. You met the natives; you learned the customs. Reading a book by her was like going on vacation with her characters. You felt it all.
Before telling you my favorites I thought I would let a couple of other AAR staffers who also loved her share with us what they found special about her work.
Linniegayl: My mother introduced me to Mary Stewart and I have some wonderful memories talking about my favorite books with her. I link my desire to visit Greece for the first time to my favorite Stewart, The Moonspinners. While I haven’t been to Crete yet, the first time I glimpsed one of the Greek windmills on Santorini it brought back all my images of The Moonspinners. As an adult, I shared my love of Mary Stewart with my teenage niece, and the two of us read The Moonspinners and My Brother Michael while on a trip to Greece. The settings come to life in those books (as well as my third favorite – This Rough Magic.) The Gabriel Hounds! How could I forget that one! I remember being so shocked when we discovered the secret about Aunt Harriet. That was another great Stewart in an exotic location. And I think one of my first romances.
Lynn: Oh, I loved Mary Stewart’s books! Nine Coaches Waiting is a special favorite of mine. I just loved the way she created her settings and the eerie gothic mood of her stories. I also liked that her heroines were intelligent and that they actually went out and did things rather than just passively sitting back while things happened to them.
Maggie: My two favorites are Airs Above the Ground which includes the famous Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School and has a wonderful secondary character in Tim Lacy and Rose Cottage, a mystery which has a happy surprise at the center of it.
Now it’s your turn. What are your favorite novels about this author? Who introduced you to her? What did you find special about her work?