There is something comfortable (and comforting, too) about Mary Stewart's novels. I've only read three so far (not counting her Arthurian quartet which I also read years and years ago), but picking one up is like sitting in a cozy overstuffed chair in front of a roaring fire with a cup of hot chocolate in hand. In the case of This Rough Magic maybe it's more like sitting on a sunny sandy beach in front of the roaring ocean, however, since the setting is the island of Corfu in Greece.
I suspect most of you already are familiar with Mary Stewart, but if you're not she writes really marvelous suspenseful books that usually have a dash of romance in them. They are very gentle reads--with more to the mystery/suspense aspect than the romance, since it's all very chaste really (preferable to me to be honest). This Rough Magic was published in 1964 and books from that era of this sort have a particular feel to them, which I find I very much like. For me she is like Georgette Heyer in that she writes a reliably good story. Excellent escapist stuff where you can pretty much expect all wrinkles to sort themselves out in the end. And they often have exotic settings which has an appeal all its own. Picture someone like Audrey Hepburn, an attractive young woman with intelligence and moxie, stylish and independent and very likable in the lead role as heroine. She'll find herself in some sort of tight squeeze. And while there will likely be a suitor or two, don't expect her to be your run of the mill damsel in distress. She's very likely going to rescue herself.
It's handy to know a little Shakespeare for This Rough Magic, but if you're like me and haven't read as much of the Bard as you'd like (another gaping hole sadly), the story won't suffer for it. Lucy Waring is a young British actress visiting her sister on the island of Corfu after a failed season at home--her first stage role having ended after the "merest face-saver of a run". Phyllida is married to an Italian banker and living in the Villa Forli where she is expecting their first child who she jokingly says she's going to name Prospero. Corfu (in the book at least) is thought to have been the setting for Shakespeare's The Tempest, and the book's title is a line from the play. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, and his daughter had been had been set adrift in the hopes they would drown. In his stead, Prospero's brother would usurp his position, but the two end up on the island. There is magic (and books of magic) involved in Shakespeare's play, and Stewart's story plays on these various themes.
It's fitting then that in one of the smaller bungalows on the Forli estate a famous but now retired actor, Julian Gale, and his son Max reside. In poor health Julian is something of a recluse and as Max is a musician working on new compositions the pair prefer anonymity and quiet. While Julian Gale is friendly and gregarious when approached, Max is prickly and suspicious of visitors or other interlopers. A second bungalow, however, is occupied by the handsome and far more amiable photographer, Godfrey Manning. We have our prospective suitors, but who is going to be more suitable?
One afternoon when Lucy is swimming she discovers a dolphin has taken up residence in the bay, but someone hidden from view (and she herself appears hidden from him) begins taking pot shots at the mammal. A bit recklessly and without thinking Lucy jumps out into the open and causes a stir in order to surprise the shooter into backing off. The shots rang out from the forest by the Gale's bungalow, but Max denies that either he, and more importantly his father were the culprits. Besides, Lucy is trespassing on property she shouldn't be on. Things become even more mysterious when not just one but two local fishermen drown within a week of each other. Chance? Or is something more treacherous at work on the island?
A sunny holiday away from rain dampened London (and its theatrical failures) proves to be much darker and dangerous than Lucy anticipated. She doesn't set out to become involved in murder, but when she does tries to help the dolphin when it manages to beach itself she becomes inextricably linked to one of the two men. The story is a cat and mouse game filled with smugglers and shady dealings with the whisper of political intrigue. All great fun and highly entertaining.
This Rough Magic shares the same Greek (though not Corfu) setting with My Brother Michael, which I read about this time last year. Different stories but similar styles, the two just edge out The Ivy Tree, which I read a few years earlier, as favorites. September seems to be my month for Mary Stewart novels, though I certainly hope it won't take me a year to read another of her books (I want to read them all now of course). By the way, I love the Hodder and Stoughton reissues with their retro, glamorous covers. I've only managed to get my hands on one of those editions. In the US Mary Stewart's books are published by Chicago Review Press, which has also done a nice job on the book designs, though they have opted to give the covers a more atmospheric and mysterious look to them. I'm happy with either as ultimately it's the stories and her storytelling style I love so much. She was one of my Lost in the Stacks authors, but she doesn't seem to lack a following even today--which I am happy to see.