Saturday, January 18, 2020

6. Touch not the Cat by Mary Stewart

My nephew and I rode to downtown Oakland over the holidays, our destination the Salvation Army, in the hopes of finding there some cheap boots for a trip to Yosemite (I hadn't packed any).  I will share with you here that the men's shoe selection at the Salvation Army in downtown Oakland is quite poor and the boot selection non-existent.  I did, however, find two Mary Stewart hardbacks so it wasn't a total loss.  And we had an excellent vegetarian Thai lunch in the neighbourhood.

I am not quite sure what to make of this book.  Much of it puzzles me, as do her other gothic romance-mysteries.  People loved this book.  It is cited as one of her most popular and the reviews in Goodreads are gushing.  It's not that this isn't a good book.  It's really quite well thought out, gripping with an excellent location and situation.  It's the protagonist that I don't get.  She just seems way too nice and trusting to the point that starts to push at my willing suspension of disbelief.  I need somebody smarter and more versed in the literature of the period to help pick her mentality apart for me.

She is the only child of a widowed father, in her early 20s and part of a long, aristocratic clan that owns an estate somewhere in England.  They have long since lost any wealth associated with it, the father having sold the silver to pay for its upkeep and retired off to Germany because of health issues.  When he dies in a hit and run, she comes back, to help settle the estate, most of which is due to her cousins, because of a clause going back generations that the inheritor must be a male.  She is super fine with everything, even when we start to get hints that the cousins are not the most honest.  She stays fine when we learn that they have been stealing valuable items from the estate to make up money they have lost in their business.  She stays fine when it becomes pretty evident that they may have been responsible for the hit and run. 

I was feeling like the book was set up for us to want to preserver the estate, as Stewart gives us such loving descriptions of it and a detailed history.  Much of the heroine's character is built on her childhood there.  Her ultimate love interest is woven into its history.  And yet she is so weirdly passive and forgiving of her clearly completely fucked and evil cousins.  There is a mystery, the final fragmented words of her father involving old books in the library, that the reader can guess early on has to do with the true ownership of the estate.  The climax of this bizarrely involves her two nasty cousins arguing with her how she can screw them out of it while she sincerely is trying to argue with them that even if she could legally block them from their shitty plan of selling the place to developers so they can pay off the debts for money they basically stole, she wouldn't.  It's just a weird set-up where the reader and all the other characters can see the clear good vs. evil in the narrative, except the main character who though brave and strong basically spends the whole time not putting up any resistance beyond asking for time before she makes her decision.  Really the main point of tension is not that she doesn't want to let her cousins have the place, but that she just wants a week or two to chill out before she signs it away.  There is some unspecified reason the cousins can't wait, which is what drives them to be really stupid and blow their cover, when if they had just let her wait, she probably would have signed it all away and they wouldn't have had to do villainy.

I have had a similar, though less clear to me, critique of Stewart's other books.  Somehow, the passivity of her heroine's must be an accepted trope, akin to some similar consistent behaviour in male protagonists in the action genre.  Anybody know a book or article that might explain it a bit better to me?

No comments: