For various reasons, I haven’t done any Retro Recs in some time, which is a shame. So I’m reinstating it, here and now, and re-posting the originals to start off.
HERE’S the plan: to pull out a book from my tight-packed bookshelves and share it. Qualifications? It has to be one I’ve read over and over again, one that has inspired my own writing, and one that gave me a lasting experience of some sort. There are so many older books that are just too damned good to be buried in the mosh pit of publishing fashions and frenzies. So I’m going to pull them out and have another dance with them. And hopefully encourage others to do the same.
To choose Mary Stewart was a no brainer, actually, though it was difficult to pick between what I call ‘my rosary of three Marys’ (Stewart, Mary Renault, and Mary O’Hara). But once I decided which Mary, it was a little easier to pick the book. I’m sure others will come into play at a later date, but this time, it had to be The Ivy Tree.
The cover is from those aforementioned bookshelves, (c)1961, this is the first US printing in 1963. Isn’t this cover just deliciously (and a bit painfully) ’60s gothic? From the sweeping cape and hair to the Barnabas Collins coat and the uphill, defiant pose?
Back cover copy: If Mary Grey looked so much like the missing heiress, why should she not be the heiress? To the lonely young woman–living in a dreary furnished room–the impersonation offered intriguing possibilities… So plain Mary Grey became the glamourous Annabel Winslow. Only someone wanted Annabel Winslow missing… permanently.
I love old gothics. I miss them. Brain candy, of course, but a specific type of tweak and treat for those doomed with a brain that stubbornly refuses to totally check out. Gothics have their own formula, tiresome as any when cranked out with little skill or craft… but the good ones were complex, character driven, and subtle after their own fashion, with the formula in service to the craft, not the other way ’round. The Ivy Tree was a very, very good gothic.
Mary Grey is, like most of Stewart’s heroines, a real person: independent and capable, conflicted… and with a secret that could be the death of her, if she’s not careful. Inheritance of a small estate, a dying, over-controlling grandfather, and a few sociopaths scattered into the mix, turn a chance meeting on Hadrian’s Wall into a madness of plot and counterplot… did I mention I love gothics? A good one has as many twists as a North Country back road. And the language Stewart uses!
What right indeed? Well, you’ll have to read the book and let me know what you think. You won’t be sorry; it’s a thumping good afternoon’s read.
If you stood on the low piece of crumbling wall that enclosed the trunk, you could just reach your hand into the hole. I held on to the writhen stems of the ivy with one hand and felt above my head into the hollow left by some long-decayed and fallen bough. I put my hand in slowly, nervously, almost as I might have done had I known Julie's owl and seven mythical young were inside, and ready to defend it, or as I might have invaded a private drawer in someone's desk. The secret tryst; Ninus' tomb; the lovers' tree; what right had a ghost there, prying?