Desert Isle Keeper
Madam, Will You Talk?
Madam, Will You Talk? may very well be the very first grown-up romance I ever read. I had crept into the grown-up department of the public library in secret, because I was supposed to look after my younger siblings over in the children’s department, and had to grab books quickly. No idea how I came to pick up Mary Stewart, but once I did I was hooked. The first sentence is: “The whole affair began so very quietly.” What else can you ask for?
Madam, Will You Talk? is Mary Stewart’s first published novel, and it’s set during six days in the glorious South of France. Charity Selbourne is on holiday with her friend Louise. At a hotel in Avignon, Charity strikes up an acquaintance with David, a lonely boy who is traveling with his stepmother, who shows little interest in the boy. Soon Charity hears a rumor that David’s father is a murderer. As Louise, an art teacher, prefers to laze about and paint, but Charity enjoys visiting the sites, she asks David to accompany her on a day trip to Nimes. David suddenly acts strangely and wishes to hide, and a short time later Charity meets an Englishman at the Temple of Diana who is all charm at first, but turns sinister and threatening when she happens to mention David. Charity manages to spirit the boy away and promises she will help him further to avoid his father, because that is who the stranger is.
In order to enjoy this book – and the rewards are great – you must be prepared to believe, full-heartedly, in the power of love at first sight, and you must be prepared to allow a high number of coincidences – call it fate if you want. The former is easy: Hero and heroine are far too busy chasing across Provence to spend much time worrying about their emotions and to open their hearts to each other. When they do so, however, the atmosphere is so intense I buy the depth of their feelings every time I read the novel. The latter is easy, too, because the descriptons are so luminous, the action is so thrilling, that I never stop to consider something as mundane as coincidences. The car races especially are spectacular.
Charity is a very sympathetic heroine. She is independently wealthy after the death of her first husband, Johnny, who died in WWII. She is still deeply attached to him even though she is ready to move on now, and if you like to read about first spouses who are neither demonized nor glorified, this is the book for you. When she gets involved in adventures far beyond her wildest dreams, or rather, nightmares, she acts sensibly and with great courage. The hero has a dark side to him, which can make him almost frighteningly nasty at times, but once he can shed that, he is both romantic and likeable.
In spite of its overall excellence, there are two aspects that date the book very clearly to the 1950s, and which I don’t want to conceal. Twice, the work “negro” is used to describe, in an entirely unpejorative way, a person from Africa. The term was not as politically loaded as it is now, still a reader might be offended by it. Second, the characters (thankfully with the exception of David) smoke incessantly. You may claim they are under considerable pressure throughout the book. But with this rereading, the datedness of that element really struck me.
Madam, Will You Talk? remains one of my all-time favorite romances. It was fundamental in opening the door to the romances genre to me, which alone would be a reason to value it very highly, but I still enjoy it tremendously after having reread it so often. It’s Mary Stewart at her best.