by Mary Stewart
Artist Jennifer Silver has come to the picturesque, secluded Valley of the Storms in the French Pyrenees to meet with a young cousin who is about to enter the convent there -- only to discover that the young woman has died in a dreadful car accident. Or did she?
Lies abound in this strange and frightening place, but seeking the truth could lead Jennifer to her own violent death.
I went into this novel knowing what to expect from the typical Mary Stewart mystery-romance-thriller, and for the most part, all the usual elements were there. Young Englishwoman? Exotic, romantic setting? Mystery for the heroine to solve? Trusty "hero"? Yes, all present and accounted for. However, this is one of my least favorite of her books that I've read, so far. (The other tied for least favorite would be Touch Not the Cat, though that might have something to do with the fact that I listened to an audio version of it.)
The setting started out alright but ultimately seemed lacking. Maybe it was the convent that bored me... I breathed a sigh of relief when she finally left the convent and groaned inwardly when she returned. The heroine and hero were passable at best. I didn't love either of them, to be honest, and a couple of the other characters were downright irritating. The key elements of the so-called mystery were so obvious to a seasoned reader that it was more a waiting game than a true mystery. Less "I wonder why/how..." and more "I wonder how long until they finally realize that..."
Negatives aside, it wasn't a universally unpleasant reading experience-- just not the best, particularly for this author of several superior books.
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--Are all of Mary Stewart's heroines beautiful? I don't go so far as to request an outright ugly heroine, but they needn't all be absolute stunners, surely.
--I liked the gardening sister-- though I'm puzzled as to why her wiping her brow with the back of her hand was a "peasant gesture". How does a fine lady wipe the sweat from her face? Oh, never mind. I suppose no-one but a peasant would ever exert herself to the point of sweating.
--As I haven't read all of Stewart's novels, maybe it's premature to make this kind of observation-- but isn't is a bit silly and boring that almost all of her traveling heroines go off to these exotic, romantic foreign countries, only to fall promptly in love with the only Englishman around for miles? I can think of only one exception in the novels I've read, to this point. All the others go for the English guy. I mean, hey, there's nothing wrong with a nice British accent! ;o) But isn't it... boring, after the third or fourth time? When I mentioned it to my husband, he said something about the two characters automatically having more in common, compared to anyone else around. Well, sure, but... I still think it's dull.
--You know what else I think is dull? When the hero and heroine already have a history, before we (the readers) get to know them. Oh boy, a built-in, pre-heated romance-- just add drama to start the chemical reaction. That's so very exciting. All the tentative getting-to-know-you stuff's long past. It has all the flavor of a big ol' wad of "ABC" gum (to harken back to elementary school days). However, I'll admit here that I'm just being hard to please, because when Stewart comes from the other approach-- hero and heroine meet/are thrown together at the beginning of the book and fall in love by the end of the story, which is generally wrapped up in just a few days-- I'm one of those annoying readers who tsk-tsk over "Insta-Love". You just can't win!
--Why does Stephen call Jennifer a "darling child"? Has any woman ever liked that?
--There's this one scene that puzzled me... Doña Francisca is watching Celeste. "It was as if, from who knew what dark and bitter depths, a kind of fierce and yearning tenderness had been dragged up, and was straining like a passion at features which fought to deny it. Love, in a place that knew only barrenness and the fires of frustration. Jennifer, shocked again at the wave of acute distaste which swept over her, moved quickly and quietly..." I wondered for a moment if it could be possible that Doña Francisca was/is Celeste's mother-- but on the other hand, it felt almost as if Stewart was hinting at something else entirely. Jennifer's strong visceral reaction-- "acute distaste"-- seems to indicate... Well, anyway, it just feels odd. Her later explanation to Celeste that Francisca is somehow living vicariously through the girl didn't completely account for Jennifer's own feeling of intense repugnance at the scene.
--"Thunder on the right" is apparently a good omen. Never heard of that before. Around here, thunder from any direction is a sign that you'd best find shelter immediately. Lightning is deadly.
--Oh, all the exclamations of "Well, isn't that convenient!" It's marvelously convenient that Gillian has a very rare form of colorblindness-- that Gillian has amnesia after her car accident-- that Gillian regains her memory after the bridge incident-- that Gillian has selective amnesia-- oops, I mean "retrograde amnesia" about just the time between her car accident and the bridge incident. It's also super convenient that without even trying, Jennifer finds the letter Doña Francisca's been using to blackmail Bussac. Then there's the mother superior's blindness...
--Ah, the changing times... Jennifer's (slooooow) realization that Gillian and Bussac have been living in sin-- unmarried-- is somewhat priceless, by modern standards. Um, look, honey... I'm a steadfast traditionalist, myself, but are you really that upset about the fact that she hasn't married him, under the circumstances? I mean, at this point, Jennifer thinks that Gillian has gotten herself mixed up with a smuggler-- a murderer-- not to mention the whole bank-robbing angle. And yet she finds it within herself to be upset about the fact that she's not married to the murderer... Classic Jennifer! ;o) (Jennifer's not the brightest of Stewart's heroines, to put it gently.)
--I guess Jennifer figures a few things out on her own, early in the book, but once she gets Stephen involved, she seems to put her brain into slow gear. More than once, Stephen has to explain the obvious to her. And then he goes off for the police by himself. "Get thee to a convent!"-- Er, I mean, "Get straight into the convent and stay there till I come. The rest's for me and the police; you'd better keep out of it." Mwa-ha-ha ha-ha!! Well, of course she doesn't end up staying in the convent-- but what a bossy hero!
--Celeste and Jennifer's chat in their shared room really brought it home to me that, UGH, they are both so annoying! And Luis, a.k.a. Stallion-Boy? Also so annoying!
--So there are no police in the village on a Wednesday? And apparently it's common knowledge? (At least, Bussac is well aware of it.) It would be a wonder if anyone committed a crime on any other day. Oh, wait. I bet we're supposed to find that charming. Like a French version of Mayberry and its sheriff without a gun.
--After Jennifer and Stephen make it to safety, they indulge in a little kissy-face (scandal!!). "The men who had come with him were standing around the two of them, much as cattle will gather in a curious circle around any strange phenomenon that invades their pasture. And twelve pairs of dark eyes watched them steadily, without the slightest trace of embarrassment-- watched them, indeed, with approval, envy, and the passionate interest of born connoisseurs." ~snerk~ Cuz they're French, see? And the French are... cattle-like and really into voyeurism? Hee hee... High-larious!
--On a darker note... The French doctor (and everyone else involved, it seems) thinks that because Gillian has "retrograde amnesia"-- and therefore, is temporarily unaware of how she spent the past few weeks-- everything will work itself out just perfectly. So she was lied to and tricked by Bussac! No biggie! She was a widow on her way to join a convent and instead ended up living (and sleeping) with a complete stranger-- a murderer, in fact-- because he convinced her they were married. But why fuss over a little thing like that? She's a young woman, so as far as we know, she could be pregnant and not know it, yet-- but meh. It'll be fine! Heck, what she doesn't know won't hurt her. She may remember later on, the doctor admits, "but it won't matter so much then" because by then she'll be "stronger". Yeah, I guess it's better than it could have been, for her to have a peaceful recovery period, but... :o/ Gillian seems to like Bussac pretty well-- murderer or not, he doesn't physically or verbally mistreat her, and it doesn't hurt that he has a certain animal magnetism-- which makes the whole situation less horrific than it could have been, but that doesn't change the fact that he lies to her to keep her with him-- to make her "accept" him.
--Incidentally, I guess Gillian will just go back to England with the lovebirds. She won't be staying at this particular convent, at least.
--It seems like many of my fellow readers agree that this wasn't up to Stewart's usual standard, but there are at least a couple who count it as a favorite!