I’m thrilled to announce that we have another guest review by Annabel Frazer. Annabel is the author of The Day the Earth Caught Cold, which I recommend as a suspenseful adventure that reminds me in some ways of the writing of Mary Stewart – and praise from me doesn’t come any higher than that! Annabel has reviewed Stormy Petrel on this blog-site and her review today is of The Ivy Tree:

Set in Northumberland, The Ivy Tree feels like a personal reminiscence of a countryside and a way of life that Mary Stewart knew well, rather than simply a product of the ‘where shall I set this one and what should it be about’ thinking of the successful best-selling author.

A minimal set of characters serves her well in exploring the story in detail. Like Touch Not The Cat and Nine Coaches Waiting, this is an inheritance plot, but a very simple one. Matthew Winslow, who has owned Whitescar Farm for decades, is dying and has no living children. His beloved grand-daughter Annabel disappeared several years ago and his great-nephew Connor Winslow is now managing the farm.

The story is told from the point of view of Mary Grey, a young woman who like Linda Martin in Nine Coaches Waiting and Gilly in Thornyhold is rootless and longs for a home of her own that will return her to the security of childhood. This theme of searching for contentment and security in a dwelling-place is so consistent in Mary Stewart (you also see it in Rose Cottage, and even Stormy Petrel) that you find yourself wondering if there was some personal reason for it. But I think it’s explored better in The Ivy Tree than any of her other books.

Mary is beautiful, intelligent and capable, but her bleak opening narration lets you know, somehow, that she is also damaged by something she won’t explain. When she encounters Connor Winslow and he mistakes her for his lost cousin Annabel, she is curious and half-amused, but not very interested. But then, slowly, like the character Brat Farrar (the book is praised as an influence within the text), she seems to be drawn towards the possibilities of embarking on an impersonation project – not just financial security, but the promise of a home.

So Mary Grey goes to Whitescar Farm as ‘Annabel’ and straightaway has to learn how to handle ‘her’ grandfather, her cousin Con, his half-sister Lisa and the other characters who make up the farmstead. For me, it’s these supporting characters who make the book such a joy – Matthew Winslow may be a cardboard cut-out tyrannical autocrat, but silent, kitchen-absorbed Lisa and, later, Annabel’s delightful younger cousin Julie and her reserved but charming suitor Donald come warmly and believably across the page. But it is Con who is the masterstroke. Con with all his contradictions – attractive, intelligent, capable, sometimes humorous, but also hungry and ruthless.

It’s in watching Mary/Annabel begin to settle into this household that we start to see her strengths. She is smart, funny, brave in standing up to her grandfather and Con, and – eventually, even happy. You desperately want her to be able to keep this happiness but, as with Brat, you know it’s based on a lie.

It would be impossible to describe the final sections of the story without giving away too much, but suffice it to say that there are flashes of sunlight, sadness and terror. A particular pleasure is our heroine’s warmly humorous interactions with Julie – now as beautiful, indecisive and liable to make mistakes as Annabel was at Julie’s age.

It seems impossible that things can end happily for this group of conflicted people, and the book’s unusually haunting, elegiac tone does not promise well. But for those who prefer happy endings, I can reassure you that there is hope.

For me, The Ivy Tree is both the best and my favourite of Mary Stewart’s suspense novels (not always the same thing) – although I have to admit that for comfort reading, I am more likely to turn to Wildfire At Midnight. After all, there’s nothing like a crazed serial killer stalking a bleak mountainside to make you feel cosy.

What do you think? I am fascinated by Annabel’s clear-sighted view of Mary Stewart characters’ need to find a place to belong and take root. Please chime in with your thoughts – but please be aware that we are trying to keep this post clear of spoilers.