Desert Isle Keeper
Nine Coaches Waiting
A DIKlassic Review
originally published on February 21, 2008
I have a confession to make: I used to think Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart a prime example of a Guilty Pleasure. Very well written, but verging on melodrama, and thus only to be enjoyed with a touch of embarrassment. Rereading it for the purpose of this review, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong. My only excuse is that I haven’t read it in many years, and the last time must have been in the German translation. I couldn’t have missed otherwise what an all-around marvelous novel this is.
Linda Martin, aged 23, is the daughter of an English poet and a French mother. She used to live in France with her parents, but they died in a plane crash when she was 14, and she was sent to a dreary orphanage in London. After spending the last two years as an underpaid teacher at a boarding school, she jumps at the chance to return to her beloved France as governess to the young Count Philippe de Valmy. During the interview with Philippe’s Aunt Héloise, she gets the impression that the job would only be given to a teacher who spoke little or or French, so she keeps her French background a secret.
The novel begins with Linda arriving in Paris and taking a taxi to the hotel where she is to meet with Héloise. As in any Mary Stewart novel, the atmosphere of Paris on a rainy winter night is brilliantly depicted. (An aside: Mary Stewart is a genius, plain and simple, when it comes to setting. I’ve been to most of the areas in Europe she uses as backgrounds for her novels, and when I want to recapture my holiday impressions, I lay hold of the novels. They capture the mood of these places to perfection.) The title, Nine Coaches Waiting, is a quote from a Renaissance play by Cyril Tourneur. In the play the coaches are a symbol for the tempting offer of life at the palace extended to a poor girl, and in this novel each coach is represented by a ride in a car. The novel is highly literary, with quotes and allusions abounding. I love this now, but I loved the novel equally well as a 14-year-old with no knowledge of English literature.
Heloise takes Linda to Castle Valmy in Haute-Savoie near Geneva. The place is beautifully situated in the mountains above Lake Geneva, and the luxury and leisure of her new life is intoxicating for Linda. She quickly grows very fond of her nine-year-old charge, an orphan like herself, and life couldn’t be better, were it not for Philippe’s uncle and Héloise’s husband, Léon de Valmy. Léon was paralyzed in a car accident some years before, and he depends on a wheelchair. In spite of this handicap, he is steward of Valmy and trustee of Philippe’s estate until the latter’s majority. He combines excessive good looks and devastating charm with a vile temper and an uncanny ability to manipulate others, and Linda begins to understand why Philippe fears his uncle and tries to avoid him as much as possible. Then two things happen: One day, Linda meets both William Blake, an English botanist who works as a forester on a neighboring estate, and Léon’s grown son Raoul de Valmy, who combines his father’s good looks with a much less polished nature. The next day, someone shoots at Philippe in the forest.
I don’t want to reveal any more here, but believe me that the level of suspense remains high until the very last page. This does not depend so much on fast action, but far more on the horrifying experience of being hunted and on the painful dilemmas in which the main characters find themselves.
This is a Cinderella story, but with a Cinderella who is aware of her position and its limitations every single step on the way. It’s a story about love at second sight, and about temptation on several levels. And it’s a story about trust and how much or little you can afford of it. The main characters suffer deeply because they find themselves out of their depth and must face decisions that cost them dearly. So it’s a very moving story, too, with a final scene so emotionally satisfying it grips me each time I reread it.
Mary Stewart is one of the founders of the Romantic Suspense, and if you haven’t read her novels yet, go out and do so immediately. They combine the flavor of the 1950s and 1960s with such ageless perfection in plotting, suspense, and characterization that you can enjoy them as historic documents – and as shining examples of the best the genre has to offer. Other favorites of mine are Madam, Will You Talk, Wildfire at Midnight and My Brother Michael, but any of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels is a great read. She is a marvelous author to discover, and I hope you will do so soon, or embark on a feast of rereading, as I intend to.