Touch Not the Cat
I always keep a fairly sizeable list of books that I want to buy. I don’t purchase them straight away online because I love the little thrill I get when I find something I’ve been looking for awhile. The other day I came across a copy of Touch Not the Cat in a thrift store and I got to experience that happy tingle of discovery. Several people had recommended this book to me, and it sounded like just my kind of read. And, very happily, it was just that.
Bryony Ashley comes from a long line of survivors. The Ashleys have been at Ashley Court since before the Conqueror. Through amazing instincts of self-preservation, they weathered regime changes and political chaos; however, more prosaic problems of money may just be their undoing. Bryony has lived at the now dilapidated Ashley Court for much of her young life. Her father owns it, but she will never inherit. And she’s rather relieved about that. The estate is entailed, but the only income it manages is from light tourism. Bryony’s father, Jon, has struggled with himself about how to solve this problem, but before he can come to any conclusions, he is killed in a hit-and-run accident while in Bavaria. Bryony is called to her father’s deathbed by her lover, an unknown young man who has been communicating with her via telepathy since she was a small child.
Bryony returns to Ashley Court to settle the estate, hoping all the while that her mysterious lover will finally reveal himself. She is sure that he must be one of her Ashley cousins, since telepathy is an Ashley gift, passed down from an old gypsy ancestress. But which of her cousins, Emory, James, or Francis, she has no idea. Also troublesome are her father’s last words, which hint at danger for Bryony and a long unsolved mystery at Ashley Court.
Recently I reviewed another book, Poseidon’s Kiss, and I complained that the author had squandered her opportunity to use old family history to make her story more exciting. Mary Stewart does not make the same mistake in Touch Not the Cat. At the end of each chapter is a small snippet from a more tragic period of Ashley history in which one of the more notorious Ashleys, Wicked Nick, was murdered by his lover’s brothers. Stewart cleverly parallels Bryony and Wicked Nick’s stories, and also includes poetry snippets from another ancestor’s scholarly works to hint at some of Ashley Court’s hidden history.
Touch Not the Cat has a very gothic feel to it. I’ve heard the gothic romance described as a romance between a girl and a house. Here Bryony’s relationship with Ashley Court is intense, but a bit sour. It’s not the house she’s in love with; it’s her mysterious suitor. But who is he? If she wrongly identifies him, it could lead to some very dangerous consequences. Things at Ashley Court aren’t what they should be. Important objets d’art are missing, and strangers lurk in shadows and steal away into the night. Bryony knows her lover doesn’t want to hurt her, but his intentions are unclear. The tension of the story, both romantic and suspenseful, is pulled taut. Stewart seduces you along with her deft, evocative prose and her little hints. This is very compelling reading. And though the book is not a romance, there are some very romantic moments, and the resolution, when it comes is very sweet. Bryony’s lover is one of my favorite types of heroes.
The only problem I have with the book is that it seems a bit strange that Bryony never before identified her lover. Since she has known all the men she suspects all of her life and interacted with them on many, many occasions, it is surprising that she didn’t figure out who it was long before she reached adulthood.
I had tried Mary Stewart before, but the book I tried, This Rough Magic, didn’t strike the same chord as this book did. Touch Not the Cat was just the perfect blend of suspense, old family secrets, romantic longing, and mystery. I know I have a few more of Stewart’s books in the TBR pile, and now I will have to drag them out.