Wednesday, May 05, 2021

27. Madam, Will you Talk? by Mary Stewart

This book was half-maddening and half-quite enjoyable.  Fortunately, in that order.  I think I am starting to get a handle on my ambivalent feelings about Mary Stewart's work.  There are elements in her books that really bug me, mainly the way her main characters perceive and behave.  I was having trouble distinguishing how much of my annoyance was more due to the historical context of the time she was writing and how much was due to her own choices as a writer.  Her books, written mainly for women, I assume, but probably capturing some male readers at the time, take place in that really awkward period in British gender dynamics in the second half of the twentieth century.  Mary Stewart seems to handle this by constantly reinforcing their weakness internally. Her characters are actually kind of kickass in the way they behave.  It is in their internal narrative that they are constantly questioning themselves. It bugs me.  I still can't fully delineate if it is my own inherent sexism and general frustration with ambivalent characters (this annoyance applies to male characters who prevaricate as well; one just encounters it less in the kind of fiction I read) or if there is something inherent in Stewart's writing that makes it stand out for me.

Madam, Will you Talk? did help me to realize one thing that she does as a writer that is honestly worthy of criticism.  She writes in such a way that makes you assume you are dealing with a reliable narrator, but in the womanly worry internal monologue, she steers the reader deliberately in the wrong direction so that you perceive a character in the book erroneously.  It feels like cheating to me.  Specifically, in this book, she meets a man that she has been told is a murderer.  He is looking for his son and at this point, she believes that the son is hiding from the father.  However, she is clearly jumping to conclusions and the reader knows this.  Yet, Stewart paints her reaction as if he is a murderer. 

"I saw his eyes narrowing on me in a look that there was no mistaking. It was not imagination this time to see violent intentions there. If ever a man looked murder at anyone, Richard Byron looked it at me on that bright afternoon between the flaming beds of flowers in the garden of Nîmes."

Reading it again, it does sort of make sense in the context of what we learn later.  Still at the time, I was pretty sure Richard Byron was not going to be an actual bad buy.  The writing made me feel conflicted and unsure and not in a suspensful way but just in a confusing way.  I do think somebody smarter than me could analyze the sexual politics here, as the threat of violence is inherent in some weird way in their eventual loving relationship.  He bruises her wrist and these bruises keep coming up even after they have cleared up the confusion and realize they love each other.

And this was the really bizarre part. He is pursuing her and she is fleeing for the first big exciting chase in the book.  This goes on all over southern france and is quite fun.  When he does finally catch her for good, they realize they both had read the other wrong and are on the same side.  And then like two hours later, she is confessing that she is in love with him!  It's just bonkers.  Was it because back in the 50s you couldn't have sex before marriage, so if you were at all physically attracted to somebody, you had to fall in love right away so you could get it on?  Stewart does a good job of believing that the two could be attracted to each other after the mix-up.  It is actually a fairly effective and enjoyable romantic set-up but the speed of it is just dizzying.  Like maybe they can have a mix-up and antagonism that turns to attraction but can we take our time with it?  Just bizarre.  

As I said, I was quite annoyed with the first half and somewhat disengaged.  However, the second half delivered some real thrills and the plot backstory was rich and convincing.  I realize I haven't even got to the main plot in my zeal to do simplistic literary analysis.  Basically young and attractive widow Charity is on a vacation in France with her friend.  At an inn in Provence she meets a nice but nervous 13 year-old boy who is travelling with his stepmom.  Charity learns through the tourists gossip network at the inn that his dad was accused but acquitted of murdering his friend and that the wife (the stepmom) is on the run with the boy, fearful of murderous and maybe insane Richard Byron.  Charity befriends the boy and in trying to help him hide from his father uncovers a more complex plot.  

It is the second half where the plot begins to be revealed, the mystery lifted and true bad guys and good guys properly divided where we get some really good action.  Charity's previous husband was a fighter pilot and a really good driver and he taught her how to drive.  She gets to use her driving and fighting skills in a great scene where she bests and breaks down a nasty but incredibly handsome French conspirator.  Really fun stuff!  So ultimately redeemed and Mary Stewart stays on the list.  :)

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