The Ivy Tree
If you’re like me, you feel a bit smug when your page 30-hypothesis turns out to be true. But you also count it a huge bonus that you enjoyed the book nonetheless.
Mary Grey is enjoying a day’s rest by Hadrian’s Wall when she is suddenly accosted by a handsome stranger, Connor Winslow, who mistakes her for his dead cousin and fiance, Annabel Winslow. She accepts the coincidence, but rebuffs his attempts to get to know her better. The next day, however, his sister approaches her at the cafe where Mary works and makes her a proposition. Of all the cousins, Annabel was their grandfather’s favorite and, even with her presumed death, Connor is unsure of his inheritance, despite the fact that he has been running the ancestral estate for the past eight years. Mary Grey is asked to impersonate Annabel and accompany them to the family home where their grandfather is dying, claim her share of the inheritance, and then split it three-ways.
Considering that she has nothing better to do and no money, Mary acquiesces and leaves for the Winslow home. But once she arrives, she begins to uncover more and more of Annabel’s past and the strange Winslow family, leaving her to wonder if she is in real danger from the gleam in Connor’s eyes.
What I appreciate about most of Mary Stewart’s books is the normality of her characters and plots. Not for her the SEALs of today and dukes of yesteryear – she writes about farmers and secretaries caught in situations out of their control. Even the villain here is normal, motivated by the jealousies and sins of normal people, but driven out of proportion by circumstances and nature. Mary Grey is a sympathetic heroine – self-possessed and confident, but trapped by her own curiosity, survival instincts, and morals. However, by the end the villain is dead and our heroine finds happiness.
The Ivy Tree deviates from Mary Stewart’s classic gothic formula, but more than that would be a spoiler. What I can say is that even though I saw the explanation coming way too early in the book, Mary Stewart is skillful enough that I kept second-guessing myself, right up until the moment my hunch was confirmed. And when I finished the book, I went back to look for the clues.
But there’s something very small and half-assed about this book, more so than her other books. The nature of the plot and narrative limits the book’s scope, and what is left is a not-quite-gothic romantic and not-quite-suspense. I mean, it’s not gothic if there’s only one real candidate for villainhood in the vicinity, and it ain’t suspense if I can see the solution a mile away and the pace is borderline plodding in places. However, the romance is satisfactory albeit brief, a case where less is definitely more, and it’s probably the one thing that pushes The Ivy Tree into a recommendation. That, and the fact that Mary Stewart kept me on my toes despite my smart-ass guesses.
So I’m not complaining. I got this book (for 50 cents!) when I was sorely in need of a good story with a side helping of romance, and The Ivy Tree fits the bill.