Friday, March 15, 2019

20. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

As a younger person, I did not like this style of cover design.  I think it felt old-fashioned and chintzy.  The image itself still evokes that sense of cheapened glory (like Hollywood Squares) in me, but today I find the overall design to be really compelling.  I love the white space and right alignment.  The colours are particularily appealling. I don't know if it was originally supposed to be true-white or if the eggshell was deliberate as the book is quite old, but the green on the off-white really works for me here.  I guess this paperback was from 1964, but I would have pegged it as later. 

I have mixed feelings about the book as well.  I mostly enjoyed it and there is no doubt that Mary Stewart is a good writer.  I am still not well-versed enough in the gothic romance genre to be able to differentiate what are the writer's choices and what are staples of the genre.  The setup is absolutely fantastic and sucked me right in.  The lack of satisfaction for me in a lot of these thrillers is the distribution of the tension and mystery.  Here, it felt like you were pretty much ignorant of the details on anything nasty going on except for just the menacing feeling of everything. Once you do learn that there is indeed something real going on, you learn it all quite quickly about halfway through the book.  There is one central mystery that remains right up until the end and this whether or not the love interest is part of the evil plot or not.

Let me get to the basic plot before going on.  Linda Martin is a well-bred young British woman who had been raised in Paris and then on to England before her parents died in a car crash.  As a grown-up orphan, she became a ward at an orphanage.  Because of her sense and good work, she is recommended to become a governess to a recently-orphaned 10-year old boy who lives now with his uncle and aunt in the Chateau de Valmy in rural France.  The aunt is lovely, the boy is pale and sickly but good and the uncle a penetratingly handsome ex-rake who is now confined to a wheelchair.  The uncle in particular unerves young Linda Martin but he always behaves very decently towards her and she does a very good job with the boy.  The chateau is enormous and beautiful and everything is going fine until the boy gets "accidently" shot at while on the walk in the forest and the uncle's son, Raoul arrives, who is as good-looking as his father and can walk.

Here is where I started to get a bit disconnected.  One thing that is odd about this time is how quickly characters "fall in love".  I sort of thought the whole thing was to take your time back in these virginal times, but this book started to make me think that it was the opposite. Because you couldn't have sex right until you were married, you had to fall in love, get engaged and get married as soon as possible.  They go out on one date, albeit a fantastic one, and she has to admit the next day that as much as it pains her, she is hopelessly in love with Raoul. 

The other weird thing is that Raoul is not totally an asshole, he actually seems pretty good overall. It's just that he is so intense and aggressive. It's really worse than that.  He is always getting mad and all intense and brooding (about other things but also because he too seems to be equally in love with Linda).  He is also almost crashing into her with his over-powered car that he drives too fast or grabbing her and crushingly kissing her.  He never kisses in a gentle, slow way. It's pretty gross by today's standards, but it's not just simply that, there is some weird way they interact even verbally that seems stunted and off-putting to me. 

Accidents continue to happen around the boy and she becomes more and more suspicious.  She then learns that there is indeed a plot to murder the boy (who is set to inherit the entire estate) and she may be the one to be scapegoated for it. She is sure of some of the perpretators but is her beloved, yet weirdly aggressive Raoul in on it as well?  Things reach a climax and she realizes she has to run away with the boy and get him to safety (to his other uncle who seems good).

I really liked the main character.  She is smart and practical and makes the strong moral choice right away.  Very much the young female version of the British archetype.  What's problematic with the narrative is that while she makes the right choices that lead her down a difficult path, they end up being for the most part useless, as she lacked info that would have made her realize there was no need to run and hide with the boy.  And it's funny because when I was reading the exciting run away scenes, I kind of just wanted to get through it and see what happened.  I think I suspected there was not enough info to confirm her suspicions and was thus not totally bought in.  It's a shame because the description of some of the locations and their walk together was really beautiful and cool.

I guess for the readership they were targeting, the real suspense is whether the dashing aristocrat is true or not.  In that view, then, the mystery of the conspiracy and the thrill of the escape is all side business to the real climax.  This may be a simplistic reading, but it could be the equivalent to the romance in a man's adventure book being the side dish to the real climax of the baddy being killed or the objective achieved.  Could be a thesis in there somewhere, but I will need to read more of these books.

There is also a side character, a young, healthy and handsome British man she meets in town who is staying in a cabin doing some forest research.  He hilariously and obviously represents the staid, practical man a character like Linda Martin is supposed to end up with (and probably most of the readership). He is a very nice and cool-seeming guy and gets treated like an utter door mat in the face of her passion for the french aristocrat with the fancy car.  Total friend-zone. 

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