Welcome to the second post for #MaryStewartDay – in all, there are about eight posts planned
I want to begin this post by saying a huge thank you to Olivia and her mother, author Annabel Frazer, for allowing me to post their reviews of The Ivy Tree here as part of our celebration of Mary Stewart Day! Olivia is 13 years old, read The Ivy Tree during the school holidays, and has written her review especially for Mary Stewart Day. Many of us first encountered Mary Stewart’s writing as teenagers, and some of us have re-read her books so often that we can barely remember our first impressions of them. I can promise that you will enjoy reading Olivia’s thoughts on reading her first Mary Stewart novel.
Annabel’s review has been posted before on this blog, here, but I am re-posting it today because it is so lovely to have a mother and daughter team review the same book! So many readers of Mary Stewart say that they were introduced to her books by their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, so I love that the tradition is continued here.
Let’s start by reading Annabel’s thoughts on the pain and pleasure of promoting a Mary Stewart novel to a loved one:
It doesn’t always go as intended when you encourage someone to read a book you love. Sometimes they hate it. Sometimes, even worse, they make you hate it. But sometimes you love a book – and a person – so much that you just can’t help it, which is why as soon as I thought my oldest daughter Olivia was old enough to try Mary Stewart novels, I started urging her to read one.
My own mother would tell me that was the wrong tactic. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make an opinionated 13-year-old read the books you want, not when there are phones to fiddle around with, younger brothers to beat up… So I got nowhere, until one day, Olivia came bounding up to me. “Mum! I’ve chosen a book to take camping.”
Triumphantly, she brandished my lovely new 2017 edition of The Ivy Tree, which I had asked my sister to get me for my birthday. I had some brief thoughts of pages spattered with mud, but suppressed them.
Through the whole of our summer camping trip, she was glued to The Ivy Tree. It was fascinating to ‘read’ it again through her eyes. She felt the narrator, Mary, was slightly irritating, but that the absent Annabel was more annoying still. Con, she initially felt, was rather nice. Adam, she viewed with suspicion. As our tent and everyone in it got muddier and the pages flickered past as she read the book in the back-seat of the car, in the woods, wherever she got the chance, her views began to change. By the end, she started to understand the little details she had missed in the beginning, details I was now able to smugly point out from my position of superior knowledge.
I’ve always thought that with The Ivy Tree, a second reading (at the very least) is absolutely crucial to make sense of the clues that passed you by the first time. And how appropriate – after all, it’s a story about second chances. It’s also a warning against trying to steer others along a path based on the one you took yourself – which should have been a lesson to me before my next attempt to influence Olivia’s reading, telling her she wouldn’t like Moby Dick. She downloaded it to her IPad Mini just to prove me wrong (Melville would surely turn in his grave) and is 200 pages into it…
Now that you know how Olivia was introduced to Mary Stewart, and where she read it, I think you need to see this gloriously apt photo of her reading The Ivy Tree and then enjoy her review:
The Ivy Tree is filled with tension, antagonism and anxiety. This book is about a young woman who finds out she has a double and is paid to go to a large, country farm house for her so-called cousin Con.
I decided to read this book because my Mum kept on asking me to read books she chose for me e.g. most of the Mary Stewart books. After an extremely long time of asking me to read these books, I eventually decided to pick up the book ‘The Ivy Tree’ and read it to please my Mum, even if it did mean I would hate it. As I read the first page, I thought I would dislike it but I couldn’t put the book down, every spare moment I had, I would be reading this thrilling book.
I find it very clever how Mary Stewart never has the narrator of the book saying, ‘this place is very strange to me’ or phrases like that – for new readers of The Ivy Tree, you will understand later in the book why she does that. Next there is Con the cousin. He is a very mysterious character, you never know what he is thinking, one moment he is sweet, charming Con, making every girl blush, next he is the Con who looks as you, as if he is scanning you, trying to work out your past.
The Ivy Tree is a good book for making up what you think each scene looks like, it may not have pictures but you can picture what you think that moment looks like in the book. I find, at the beginning when the main character is sitting on the bench reading her book, you can imagine the wind blowing in her face, near the cliff of the ocean as Con approaches her. Also, she describes the house nicely, so it makes you want to go there and it easily makes you think about what the house looks like.
My favourite character is Julie because she is nice and when she finds out an important secret she keeps it to herself and doesn’t tell anyone about it. I thought Lisa didn’t work very well because she was just Con’s half-sister and I don’t think she really needed to be put in the story.
The Ivy Tree makes your heart beat faster, it makes you smile, it makes you want to never put the book down.
What a wonderful and insightful review, thank you Olivia! To round off the post, here is Annabel’s review (again, full of insight – it seems to be a family talent!):
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.
This post makes me so happy, I hope that you all enjoy it as much as I do. Please share your thoughts and opinions too. How did you discover Mary Stewart?