Mary Stewart is Gothic Romance’s Shakespeare — an enduring talent whose books have become classics. In my ongoing effort to become better versed in the classics, I bring you Stewart’s The Ivy Tree.
Here’s a synopsis, courtesy of Goodreads:
If Mary Grey looked so much like the missing heiress, why should she not be an heiress? And so plain Mary Grey became the glamorous Annabel Winslow. But she did not live happily ever after. In fact, she almost did not live at all. Because someone wanted Annabel missing . . . permanently.
First published in 1961, The Ivy Tree has everything that a classic Gothic should: a mysterious heroine, a brooding but darkly attractive hero (anti-hero, perhaps?), a large estate and fortune at stake, and menace in spades.
The plot synopsis tells little about The Ivy Tree, for good reason. To reveal much more would give too much away. The book’s heroine is Mary Grey, recently relocated to England from Canada. Within days of her arrival, Mary is approached by the handsome, but gruff Conner Winslow. Conner mistakes her for his distant cousin and almost-fiancee Annabel, who’s missing and presumed dead. Conner’s also — conveniently — the manager of Annabel’s grandfather’s estate, Whitescar. Together they hatch a plan: if Mary will impersonate Annabel, the heir to her grandfather’s estate and fortune, just until the old man kicks the bucket, they’ll divvy up Annabel’s inheritance. But only if she can fool her grandfather, her young cousin, and all the others in and around Whitescar.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
The impersonation plot is a difficult one to pull off in any situation, but leave it to Mary Stewart to make it appear child’s play. Mary is, of course, Annabel. And if you haven’t figured this out by, oh, say the the first third of the book, once the reveal comes, you’ll realize that you should have known it all along. But the mystery of Mary/Annabel is only one of many that unfold during the course of the story. Nothing’s what it seems at Whitescar.
To reveal any more of the plot would deny you the pleasure of seeing it unfold layer by layer. But it gives nothing away to tell you that like all of Stewart’s books, The Ivy Tree has style and atmosphere to spare. Stewart’s descriptions of the Pennines/Hadrian’s Wall setting are gorgeous, as are her characterizations. Mary/Annabel is mysterious, yet sympathetic. Julia, Annabel’s younger cousin and harbinger of the Swinging 60s, brings a sparkle to the story that lightens the dark themes of the book.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!
Since no Gothic would be complete without a enigmatic hero, Stewart outdoes herself and provides two. The first, of course, is Conner.
There’s no besting Stewart, so let’s let her describe Conner:
He was tall, and slenderly built, with that whippy look that told you he would be an ugly customer in a fight–and with something else about him that made it sufficiently obvious that he would not need much excuse to join any fight that was going…he had the almost excessive good looks of a certain type of Irishman, black hair, eyes of startling blue, and charm in the long, mobile mouth…all his movements had a grace that seemed a perfectly normal part of his physical beauty.
Whippy! Certain type of Irishman! Grace! Be still my beating heart! A better anti-hero than Conner Winslow will not be found anywhere, believe me. He lies, he cheats, he schemes and he calls Mary/Annabel a bitch. He’s tormented by what he can’t have. And he’s sexy as hell.
And then there’s Adam. Hmm. How to describe Adam? I wouldn’t know where to start, and neither, evidently, did, Stewart, because he’s hazy — dark eyes, dark brows, thin. Scarred. Suffering and sad.
Who, do you think, is the most interesting of the two? And who, do you think, survives the book?
I give The Ivy Tree 5 cleverly hidden love notes. That’s it. I’ll say no more. I don’t want to ruin anything. Just pick a day/weekend when you have nothing to do, and settle in for the ride. You won’t regret it.
Did you like this book, honey boo boo? Here are a few more books like The Ivy Tree:
By the way: Conner?