This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart

>> Tuesday, March 29, 2016

TITLE: This Rough Magic
AUTHOR: Mary Stewart

PAGES: 254
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: 1960s Corfu
TYPE: Romantic Suspense

When Lucy Waring's sister Phyllida suggests that she join her for a quiet holiday on the island of Corfu, young English Lucy is overjoyed. Her work as an actress has temporarily come to a halt. She believes there is no finer place to be "at liberty" than the sun-drenched isle of Corfu, the alleged locale for Shakespeare's The Tempest. Even the suspicious actions of the handsome, arrogant son of a famous actor cannot dampen her enthusiasm for this wonderland in the Ionian Sea.

But the peaceful idyll does not last long. A series of incidents, seemingly unconnected - but all surrounded in mystery - throws Lucy's life into a dangerous spin, as fear, danger and death - as well as romance - supplant the former tranquility. Then a human corpse is carried ashore on the incoming tide... And without warning, she found she had stumbled into a nightmare of strange violence, stalked by shadows of terror and sudden death.
This was a bit of a revelation. I read a few of Mary Stewart's classics about 10 years ago and (with a single exception) liked them a lot. I found them atmospheric and fun, but I didn't quite get why people would absolutely adore these books. Well, I think I do now. Looks like I've finally reached the right point in my life for them, a bit like with the Vorkosigan books.

The setup is Stewart's usual "English heroine having adventures in exotic location". Fledgling actress Lucy Waring is between jobs, after her latest play folded abruptly in London. At loose ends, she accepts her sister's invitation to join her in Corfu for a few weeks. Lucky Lucy, her sister is married to a very rich Italian businessman whose family has had property in Corfu for many generations, so there's a lovely villa in a beautiful seaside location for her to stay in rent-free.

Lucy soon becomes embroiled in the life of the neighbourhood. This, most excitingly, includes the renowned actor Sir Julian Gale, who has been in seclusion after a family tragedy. This seclusion continues in Corfu and is guarded by his stand-offish son Max, whose first interaction with Lucy doesn't go too well. There's also Godfrey Manning, a photographer who's become friends with Lucy's sister, as well as a small group of locals who work for the foreigners. There's Maria, whose husband has been missing for years, presumed stuck in Albania (I didn't quite realise before starting this just how close these two places are). There's her two teenaged children, Spiro and Miranda, named by Sir Julian, who's their godfather. There's also their beautiful friend Adonis, whose name Lucy struggles with until he laughingly suggests she uses the local pronunciation of the name.

Trouble starts with an accidental drowning, closely followed by another one. Both are explainable on their own, but something is not quite right, and Lucy is soon mixed up in some very mysterious goings on.

This was wonderful fun. There's a suspense plot that makes sense and is entertaining. The identity of the villain isn't a huge mystery, but it's not meant to be. It's all in the figuring out of why and of how he can be stopped. I particularly loved that Lucy is an active, sensible participant in this investigation, and she's extremely brave. That said, the ending wasn't perfect. The final confrontation was fine, but felt a little bit anticlimactic, because Stewart had been building and building and building the tension, leading me to expect a magnificent, dramatic 'boom' moment, but it didn't quite deliver. Still, it worked perfectly fine.

There's a lovely bit of romance. No romance reader can look at my description and fail to guess that Max is going to be the man for Lucy. From that first encounter, I thought at first he was going to be one of those cruel, punishing heroes so popular at the time (really, really not my cup of tea), but he wasn't. He turned out to be much more to my taste than expected. And of course, it helps that Lucy is a strong, capable heroine who doesn't put up with any crap from anyone.

There's also the setting, which was fabulous. The location itself comes alive, but there's also a fair bit of geopolitics and a vivid sense of time and place. This was written in the mid-60s, and the sense of Corfu being at the crossroads of the fight between the West and the communist world is striking. The snowy peaks of Albania loom over much of the action, and I loved that.

Another thing I liked was how the Corfiot characters were important and had a life of their own. The reason I picked this one up now was a comment Susanna Kearsley left on my review of the first book in Nora Roberts' latest trilogy. There I complained that, although the book was set in Corfu, there was not one named Greek character. Susanna suggested This Rough Magic as a sort of antidote, and it definitely was that. Spiro, Miranda, Adonis, Maria and several others were real people, with their own interests apart from the lives of the foreigners. Lucy's narration was a touch condescending on one or two occasions, so it wasn't perfect, although she dealt with them as people, and people she liked and respected. Definitely a lot better than the Nora Roberts book!

I thoroughly enjoyed this. I think I'll be digging up my Mary Stewart collection over the next few months. The only disappointment is that they don't seem to be available as audiobooks. As I was reading This Rough Magic it struck me they would be absolutely perfect in that format. But no, audible only seems to have the Merlin books, and even my library system, which still has a fair few CDs and even cassettes, has nothing. Someone please get on this quick!


PS - I have said nothing about the dolphin! I loved the dolphin! :)


Angiegirl 29 March 2016 at 22:16  

This is definitely one of my favorite Stewarts. Spot on review!

Fernande,  30 March 2016 at 13:35  

I think I was in my late teens when I started reading Stewart's books, and I loved them, both the romances and the Merlin series. Thanks for the review, Rosario; I'm eager to read them again.

Barb in Maryland 30 March 2016 at 18:04  

Well, yes, the dolphin is rather unforgettable...
Whenever I try to narrow down my list of Stewart favorites (from her whole book list to just a few titles), 'This Rough Magic' always makes the cut.
I haven't re-read it in a while--happy to see it still holds up. Lovely review.

Darlynne 30 March 2016 at 18:42  

I have always felt transported by Stewart's books and am delighted to see this one worked for you, which means it will probably hold up for me. These were real "take me away" stories and frequently taught me something, e.g., Lipizzaners. Plus the covers from @ the 70s were so Gothic and atmospheric. I can state with some certainty that her books contributed to my lifelong love of travel.

Darlynne 30 March 2016 at 19:00  

This is a link to one of the artists whose work always grabbed my attention:

There are, apparently, many Gothic romance lovers out there. I had no idea.

Victoria Janssen 30 March 2016 at 21:02  

I love this book! My high school had a whole batch of Stewarts, which I got into after reading her Merlin trilogy. As you said, I remember the setting of this one in particular vividly.

Marianne McA,  31 March 2016 at 22:44  

At some point I definitely had one of Stewarts books on cassette - bought at a library sale. (I just googled the RNIB and they have her books as talking books, so it's not just my imagination.)

I really like this Stewart, but my favourites are probably 'Madam, will you talk?' and 'The Moon-Spinners.' I love the sense of place in her books: Kearsley has the same ability to transport the reader.

Susanna Kearsley 1 April 2016 at 14:02  

Oh, I'm so glad you liked it! I hoped you would. For years, Max was the bar against which I measured all other men :-)

I have a hard time choosing a favourite among my Mary Stewarts (at least, the earlier suspense ones), but this one stays towards the top, together with The Moonspinners, Nine Coaches Waiting, Madam, Will You Talk?, My Brother Michael, and Touch Not the Cat. (Wildfire at Midnight, The Gabriel Hounds, and The Ivy Tree are also very good).

Sadly, I've never really connected with the Merlin ones, and the suspense novels that came after Touch Not the Cat were less to my taste than her earlier books.

My mother was actually reading This Rough Magic while she was pregnant with me, waiting for my birth, so the family joke is that my love of Mary Stewart's writing started in the womb.

But she was brilliant. I think I'd have loved her anyway.

Rosario 2 April 2016 at 10:59  

Angiegirl: I think it might be my favourite so far, but I really do need to reread the others!

Fernande: For some reason, the Merlin series doesn't appeal to me in theory, but I might have to give it a shot. It might surprise me!

Barb: I suspect the dolphin might give Max and Lucy a run for their money as my favourite characters. That scene where Lucy's discovered it beached and then she has this charged confrontation with Max... I kept going "Oh, come on, Lucy, don't forget about the dolphin!!".

Darlynne: That's one of the things I like so much about them. The locations are not just backdrops. The Lipizzaners are, if I deduce correctly, from one I haven't read just yet. Airs Above the Ground (and The Gabriel Hounds) are on my list to read next.

And yes, those covers are gorgeous. The book I have has the modern cover, which is quite boring (just a woman drinking champagne -she looks quite sophisticated, but still). I saw this one when I searched google images and couldn't resist.

Victoria: My school library had loads of good stuff (including a couple of Kathleen Woodiwiss books o_o), but unfortunately no Mary Stewarts. It was only through the romance bloggosphere that I found out about her, and I'm so glad I did.

Marianne: Yeah, doing a bit more googling I find records of audiobooks listed on several sites, but they are super expensive. They must have been done quite a while ago. Audible has only The Rose Cottage, and my library system has none. I'm assuming RNIB is not available to the general public, but if they do have them, maybe it means that audible might be able to add them for sale. I'll email them to suggest it!

I remember liking both of those books you mention, but it's been so long a reread is probably in order!

Susanna: Thank you so much for the very timely suggestion. It hit the spot perfectly. And oh, yes, Max was lovely.

Hahah, I can certainly see the Mary Stewart influence in your own writing. I love the idea that it started in the womb! :)

Marianne McA,  2 April 2016 at 20:41  

I don't think it's available to the general public, but useful to know about, perhaps. My dad used the service for a while - he had a detached retina and couldn't read for a time, and someone suggested the service to him. You could borrow a wide range of audio books for free.

There was also a service where a digest of the local newspaper was recorded every week - I'm assuming that was available through them as well, but it's so long ago that I can't remember. (My mum got involved in volunteering with that - the editing bit of the process, rather than recording it. She had no interest in sport whatsoever - neither did my dad - so the weeks she did the digest the third of the paper devoted to local sportspeople and teams was reduced to next to nothing - must have been very trying for their supporters.)

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