After musing on Twitter about how Mary Stewart’s Merlin series contributed to my burn out on pretty much any fiction dealing with the Arthurian legend, Dustbury suggested trying This Rough Magic which had references to The Tempest, one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I’m always game for book recommendations, so I put in a request in the local library and eventually obtained an old, tattered copy via the interlibrary loan system.
Before reading this, I was quite aware that Mary Stewart was known as one of the originators of the romantic suspense genre, beloved by many older romance fans. And I have to be honest here. I don’t particularly like the books that older romance fans consider classics of the genre. Most of the time, I just want to drop kick those characters into the nearest black hole. There’s just a certain sensibility in such books written before the mid-1990s that rub me the wrong way. I’m no fan of the romantic suspense genre either. I think it’s the whole falling-in-love-when-you-should-be-worried-about-staying-alive thing that makes me shake my head in disbelief.
Anyways, just because a book is in a particularly unlikeable genre does not make it bad. It’s impossible to judge anything unless you’ve actually read it.
I’m not going to rehash what it’s about. A good summary of This Rough Magic is here. I really enjoyed the allusions to The Tempest (I think naming Max’s boat Ariel was a nice touch.) And Stewart’s descriptive prose is beautiful. It’s extremely vivid and it makes me, the reader, feel like I’m in Corfu with the rest of the characters. I was disappointed to realize that she did not write any travelogues because if she had, I would have read the heck out of those.
But despite Stewart’s obvious facility with language, the rest of the book fell flat for me. At the core of it is the main character, Lucy Waring, the young actress ingénue narrating the story. I never did warm up to her, probably because she really is the stereotypical ingénue. She fancies herself smart by being able to read other people’s characters. And she’s rather stupidly brave when she goes haring off to save the day. She saves animals like a Disney heroine. And every time she flashed around her sister’s ring, I wanted to shout, “Don’t do that! You’re giving possible thieves ideas!”
Some readers think that taking two-thirds of a book to develop a romantic relationship between two characters is still too short. Well, if they read this book, they’d be blowing their tops like a supernova because Lucy and Max fall in love almost instantaneously. After they rescue the beached dolphin, they kiss and that’s that. Lucy’s heart is pretty much won. (They don’t even have the paranormal romance trope of “fated mates” as an excuse.) If there were any hints prior to that scene that the two of them were falling in love, those hints were too subtle for me. As a result, I don’t think I’d call this a romance. Suspense, yes. Romance, no. Insta-love is not romantic to me.
I found the plot weak. The villain was obvious right at his introduction. The villain’s motivation for his actions–simply doing it because he was bored and wanted to cause trouble–paints him as one-dimensional. A number of coincidences happen to Lucy which I found highly improbable. The one that took the cake was when the ocean current carried her back to shore after she went overboard the villain’s boat. I understood that this miraculous save was supposed to tie back to the island’s patron saint as well as serve as an allusion to the shipwreck in The Tempest, but the execution–for me–turned out poorly. It felt more like a deus ex machina than an intended allusion.
Because This Rough Magic was written in the 1960s, a number of things bothered me less than it would have if written now. After all, books–no matter where or when they’re set–reflect the time they’re written in. There were, of course, the references to the cold war and communism, the British colonialist/paternalistic attitudes towards anyone not British, the innocent and naive portrayals of any character who wasn’t British, and everyone smoking. But despite that, my favorite character was Lucy’s sister, Phyllida–the spoiled rich housewife, bored out of her mind, drinking while pregnant, more scared of her in-laws than having her husband beat her. I had the impression that she could have been really kickass, but Stewart had shoved her off to visit with friends while all the real action was taking place.
In short, I find Mary Stewart’s writing style in This Rough Magic lovely. But I really hesitate at trying any of her other books if the plot and characterization are as weak as this one. After all, a novel isn’t just about style. It’s also about story.