I was for sure that Mary Stewart's novel The Stormy Petrel was one of her first books, but as it turns out it was her last (published in 1991) save one. It was quite a pleasant and enjoyable read, but very tame in comparison to say Touch Not the Cat or My Brother Michael. Not that any of her books are ever terribly edgy or dark, but there is a gentleness to this story. It's quite a light adventure with ends neatly tied together and while the happy-ever-after is not as blatant as expected (there are no first kisses or longing looks or the sort of attracted-to-you, but-you-still-annoy-me tussles, if you know what I mean), you are still assured that Rose is going to end up with the most eligible young man she's just encountered.
Rose is a wonderful character. She is a young (late-ish twenties) Cambridge professor who teaches English and writes poetry. Dr. (Rose) Fenemore, struggling poetess. All very elegant and highbrow don't you know. She is an encouraging tutor to her students, two of which will cross paths with her later. She does have an interesting side, unknown to those in Haworth College. She has a side job which does well in helping pay the bills and planning picturesque vacations. She may be a poorly paid lecturer to those who know her, but behind closed doors she receives a most acceptable amount of money in the guise of Hugh Templer. "The flights of Hugh Templar's imagination paid Rose Fenemore very well . . ."
"They also gave her a much valued safety-valve for an almost too-active imagination. The pure invention of these tales, the exercise of what at its best can be called the high imagination, allow the writer (in Dryden's phrase) to take the clogs off his fancy, and to escape the world at will."
Rose is a successful writer of science fiction novels, and a chance opportunity to rent a cottage on the Hebridean island of the Scottish Highlands means she will have quiet work time to pen her stories and work on her poetry. She plans to travel north with her elder brother Crispin who, while happily married with children, has similar ideas as to what makes for a pleasant holiday. His wife prefers a more routine vacation of theaters, shops and beach resorts. But Crispin, a doctor by trade, spends his free time as an amateur photographer of more rustic locales. He and Rose like to walk and fish and look at scenic beauty. So their holiday is set, though Crispin must follow Rose several days later.
A few days on her own on the island sounds blissful, as she'll be able to settle into the cottage and spend time on her newest book before their proper holiday begins. Cue rain and thunder and now would be a good time to say, "it was a dark and stormy night . . .". The island is small and not much populated, but the locals are friendly and helpful and Rose has no qualms for staying alone in the cozy cottage set in the aptly named Otters Bay. It is a smaller house on the same premises of The House of the Tower, or Taigh na Tuir. The owner's are gone and the house is to be sold, but the cottage is perfect for a short summer rental.
So we've set the scene, picturesque and now a little atmosphere, please. Dark and stormy right? Rose is alone but safely ensconced within sturdy walls that can easily withstand the buffeting of the winds outside. She hears something creaking downstairs and slips down in her robe thinking perhaps her brother Crispin has arrived sooner than planned. And she sees in her kitchen a man turning from the sink, kettle in hand . . . "Who the hell are you?," is her response.
A good looking young man, cheeks flushed from the storm, cold and wet from the rain looking as rattled as Rose felt. A curious story is forthcoming--he is the stepson of the people who own The House and the little cottage and has been away from the island only now returning after many years away in search of them. As much as she wants him to leave she can't quite make herself send him back out into the stormy night especially when he so easily let himself in. They decide he can bunk down on the sofa, when . . . there's a knock at the door. Thinking it's Rose's brother arriving he opens the door welcoming him in. Rose's reply? "I've never seen him before in my life."
Double trouble? Indeed. The new man, another young man had been camping in a tent when the storm blew up and sent his shelter flying. So he's come to the place with the light hoping for a place to spend the night and keep dry. It isn't just double trouble but trouble of a more illegal nature. One of the men is telling the truth and the other is lying. But can Rose tell which is which. And then Crispin's arrival is delayed and now she's alone to sort out the trouble. Her idyllic island vacation has taken on a more sinister turn.
This is a story definitely that is more suspense than romance, and it isn't just sorting out her guests and their intentions. Once she comes to trust one over the other there is the problem of the sale of The House and the likelihood that the island's natural beauty with the wildlife-seals and birds and abundant fishing will be ruined by the desire to turn it all into a noisy resort. This is a story with a twist. Perhaps it is not such a stretch from her earlier works yet even with the suspenseful elements it feels so much calmer and perhaps even a tad predictable than the rest. But don't be disheartened, Mary Stewart's stories are always a delight and it is interesting to see how her writing and storytelling changes over time. Oh, are you wondering what the title refers to? It is both the name of a bird and a boat, both of which hold significance to this story!
Her books just hit the spot when something gentle and easy is needed as a distraction from life's stresses.