"I might have been alone in a painted landscape." -The Ivy Tree, Mary Stewart
Riddle me this, pickles. Where can you go to find compelling mystery, gorgeous description, mistaken identities, ballads, dialects, insane plotting, thwarted passion, family drama, an inheritance worth killing for, and not one, not two, but THREE swoon-worthy love interests? Why The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart, of course. I had no intention of reading The Ivy Tree. I had never even heard of it (though I had heard of Stewart) until I grabbed it almost at random off a library shelf. But after the very first page, I knew there was no turning back.
It begins on a beautiful day in the North of England. Mary Grey has just come over from Canada to explore and to make a new life for herself after the death of a friend in Montreal. She's sitting alone enjoying the landscape when she hears a cry in the distance. It's the sound of a name--"Annabel!"--being shouted by a furious--though devastatingly attractive--young man and she soon realizes he's shouting at her. This young man, Connor Winslow, believes her to be his cousin Annabel who ran away from the family farm eight years before and whom everyone in the family now believes to be dead. Everyone in the family, that is, except Annabel's grandfather--Connor's great-uncle--Matthew Winslow, who still intends to name her as his heir and leave her the farm Con so desperately wants. That makes Annabel (if she is still alive) very inconvenient--as Con implies during an introductory rant rife with veiled murder threats. All this is quite startling to Mary, of course, especially since Con, after he finally relents and believes that she is really Mary Grey, calmly sits down and turns on the charm. He's Irish by the way, with the "almost excessive good looks of a certain kind of Irishman." So naturally, he's the villain...or is he?
Soon after this clandestine meeting, Mary gets an offer: come to the farm pretending to Annabel, wait out the grandfather's death and collect the inheritance, then hand over the farm to Con, keeping any money for herself. Reluctantly, Mary accepts. It's money after all, and she needs money. After weeks of preparation (think The Parent Trap) she moves into the Winslow house on Whitescar farm and sets the ruse in motion. Sure enough, everybody falls for it. But she soon discovers pretending to be Annabel won't be as easy as she hoped. She must contend with the complexities of the Winslow family--especially Con's unresolved feelings for Annabel whom he had wanted to marry (incest be damned!). And then there are the secrets the real Annabel Winslow left behind, for which nobody can help her prepare.
What makes The Ivy Tree such a great read is that for the first half of it, you have NO idea what kind of book it's going to be. Is it a thriller? A romance? A funny/sad English family story a la I Capture the Castle? Turns out, it's ALL those things. It's a wonderful, flawlessly plotted mystery. It's a love letter to the North of England--I want to go to Northumberland SO BADLY--written with such achingly beautiful descriptions I wanted to weep. And then there are the characters: Matthew Winslow, who enjoys abusing Con almost as much as he adores Annabel; Lisa Dermott, Con's drab half-sister who harbors an almost incestuous devotion to him; Annabel's cousin Julie, whose giggly self-absorption adds a lot of comedy to the mix; and Adam Forrest, the brooding, Mr. Rochester-ish neighbor with secrets of his own. It's all led by our heroine, Mary Grey, who is layered and kickass and won't take any of Con's shit--even though there were times when I really, REALLY wanted her to. And speaking of Con...
He is one of the most fascinating characters I've met in awhile. Between his Vertigoesque attraction to Mary and his blind passion for the farm, he's impossible to predict. You can never tell if he's being genuine or just playing his cards. He'll flirt with you five minutes after he's threatened to kill you. His native accent comes and goes with his anger. And then there's that good old Irish charm. So what if he threatened to kill her...he tells Mary her blond hair looks like "melted silver in the moonlight." I mean, come on, I'm not made out of metal. Then there's Donald Seton, Julie's boyfriend, who is EXACTLY the man I wanted to marry when I was twelve. When I little, I wanted to be an archaeologist as well as a writer. However, I soon realized that I couldn't fully devote myself to my novels if I were also an archaeologist so I decided to marry one instead and reap the intellectual benefits. There's twelve-year-old practicality for you. My heart still goes pitter pat whenever there's an archaeologist around...and Donald Seton is an archaeologist! Plus, he's adorably shy and Scottish and he smokes a pipe and has a "transforming grin" and a soft-spot for animals and...okay, seriously Mary Stewart, I can't take much more of this. I'm going to swoon over the Irish would-be murderer some more.
The Ivy Tree isn't a fast book nor is it a brainless pot-boiler. It's slow and deliberate and you have to pay attention. Stewart doesn't spell anything out. All her characters have a veil over them, keeping them half in shadow. You wonder what everybody's motives are and the tiny hints you get of the family history are your only clues. There is not one wasted character or scene and it's often impossible to put down. Stewart weaves everything together, building to the tension to such a point that when everything finally breaks, you will probably drop the book. As soon as I finished it, I went back to the beginning and started reading it again. After I had picked my jaw up off the floor, that is. It has just about everything I love: England, intrigue, great characters, an Irishman, literary references, ballads, romance, danger, an archaeologist, Gothic undertones, and (maybe) murder. Great book.
So if you're looking for a character-driven, fiercely intelligent mystery that will leave your head spinning, go with The Ivy Tree. It's I Capture the Castle's creepy cousin. I can't wait to read more by Mary Stewart--she wrote an entire Arthurian series...seriously, where have I been?