I was shopping at a used bookstore and happened upon a pristine hardback of The Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart. Not knowing really anything at all, other than that she had penned an Arthurian series and that Kate Howe had shown some lovely editions of Stewart’s mysteries in a youtube video, I decided to spend the two dollars and give it a go. Now, according to Wikipedia (for what that’s worth), Mary Stewart “developed the romantic mystery genre” with spunky female leads. That’s as may be, but what I found in these pages was something a little different.
Yes, there was mystery. Who are these men, really, that our heroine meets on a remote island off the coast of Scotland? Better yet, why does she have such a tepid reaction to finding a man making himself quite at home, having let himself into her rented cottage?
More than a mystery, what I found was a gentle, cozy but slightly melancholy novel of a very British sort, with an almost pastoral feel at times. Though published in 1991, it brought black and white movies of the 1940’s to mind, and I could almost hear an actress of that period narrating from the opening paragraph:
I must begin with a coincidence which I would not dare to recount if this were a work of fiction. Coincidences happen daily in “real life” which would be condemned in a mere story, so writers tend to avoid them. But they happen. Daily, they happen. (p.11)
Rose Fenemore is off for a holiday with her brother. Having found a newspaper ad for a cottage, an “ivory tower” to let on a Hebridean island, she is determined that this should be the holiday spot for her to write and her brother Crispin to work on his photography. But this is no Enchanted April. Crispin is delayed and she finds herself nearly alone, but for those two men mentioned above. There is a hint of romance, a bit of suspense, a bit of danger, and even the tea is probably enjoyable but tepid.
I carried my empty mug out to the sink, then stood in the doorway and regarded them. Neither of them had taken the slightest notice of my movements, except that Mr. Parsons was already in my empty chair, and the two of them, with Ewen Mackay’s flask of whisky now standing between them, were talking about salmon-fishing. A subject which, I thought drily, afforded a good deal of scope for liars. (p.53)
Rose is a Cambridge don who writes poetry as herself but is a popular Fantasy author as “Hugh Templar,” and I loved that aspect and what it brought to the story in way of narrator’s commentary. Unfortunately, there was rather too much talk of the conscious and subconscious mind.
Whatever the facts, both men had gone about their affairs, and would presumably not trouble me again. Forget it; get back to something more reasonable in the way of fantasy fiction. (p.61)
This is a novel written in a slightly spare style, descriptive but not flowery, and the pacing moves along at a good clip. If not for the pacing, it might have felt rather dull. Instead, it is a pleasant read that would be perfect for a fall or winter read, all cozied up with a cup of tea in a comfortable chair.
After finishing The Stormy Petrel, published toward the end of her writing career, I read a few reviews of disappointed Mary Stewart fans who said that this was not her best. But this had a bit of the feel of some of my favorite earlier to mid-20th century women writers, so I’ll start with her earliest and work forward, hoping that her older work will be even more enjoyable.
If you haven’t read a Mary Stewart, perhaps this isn’t the best place to start, or perhaps it is and then everything else has the potential to be even better. If you have, and enjoyed them, then perhaps lowering your expectations for this particular novel will allow it to amuse you and transport you to a remote Scottish island for an hour or two.
The Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart | William Morrow and Company Inc, 1991 | hardback, 189 pages