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The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart
#1
[A short review with no spoilers.]

The Ivy Tree is vintage Mary Stewart, a wonderful novel written in the elegant, pitch-perfect prose that sets this author apart.

Beginning with what would seem to be a hackneyed storyline -- a young woman is hired to impersonate an heiress -- Stewart pulls a tour de force that approaches the ingenuity of Agatha Christie. I don't want to give anything away, though, so I'll say nothing specific about the plot.

I would not classify this book as a Gothic. Stewart's milieu is really Romantic Suspense, although readers of Gothics are likely to enjoy this book. Apart from the well-defined characters and romantic sweep, the virtuosity of the plotting itself makes this book one of Stewart's best.

If you want to be really dazzled, read this book and then go back and read the first few pages again. Amazing how all the clues to the mystery are right there out in the open!
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#2
I've just finished this book and will add my review to yours, Penfeather. It was an interesting story, but somehow I didn't feel like the author spoke to me. I keep thinking that Mary Stewart must be somewhat arrogant. She evidently loves language and wants to show off her knowledge of it, but has no consideration for the reader who may not be able to follow along. Perhaps she should have become a poet instead of a storyteller, as I think she's surely lacking in skills in the latter department. She has good ideas and a well formed storyline, but she puts no effort in drawing her readers into the story by using straightforward and compelling language. Can you imagine Mary Stewart sitting at a campfire and keeping her audience enthralled by telling riveting stories?
Neither can I.

I suppose in this particular book she was handicapped also by her plan that the reader should not know the heroine's own identity: is she the true claimant or is she an impostor? Therefore we never learn what the heroine thinks: we can deduce from her actions and her words, but we're not sure she's not lying either. So there's not much to make the reader like our heroine. In fact, most of the people weren't very likeable, although I loved Donald....

So it's funny to see how for you, Penfeather, (whose language skills far surpass the average reader's, I've no doubt) this book won points for its "elegant, pitch-perfect prose", and for me this prose was the thing that let me down.

Back to the story. It's been done before, of course, lots of times. Even the book's conspirators refer to the Tichborne case, the prisoner of Zenda and Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar. It's a great plot, an instant winner I should say. Nonetheless, I found myself bored quite often. Several scenes were drawn out to the limit. Conversations went on forever, and even the descriptions of surroundings, nature and such, took double the sentences they should have taken, in my opinion, of course.

My final criticism is directed at the legal issues concerning the grandfather's Will. It was discussed a lot, but in the end I think the author either messed up a bit or failed to clarify a few things.

My verdict: a 6 out of 10


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#3
(07-01-2011, 02:23 PM)Charybdis Wrote: I've just finished this book and will add my review to yours, Penfeather. It was an interesting story, but somehow I didn't feel like the author spoke to me. I keep thinking that Mary Stewart must be somewhat arrogant. She evidently loves language and wants to show off her knowledge of it, but has no consideration for the reader who may not be able to follow along. Perhaps she should have become a poet instead of a storyteller, as I think she's surely lacking in skills in the latter department. She has good ideas and a well formed storyline, but she puts no effort in drawing her readers into the story by using straightforward and compelling language. Can you imagine Mary Stewart sitting at a campfire and keeping her audience enthralled by telling riveting stories?
Neither can I.

I suppose in this particular book she was handicapped also by her plan that the reader should not know the heroine's own identity: is she the true claimant or is she an impostor? Therefore we never learn what the heroine thinks: we can deduce from her actions and her words, but we're not sure she's not lying either. So there's not much to make the reader like our heroine. In fact, most of the people weren't very likeable, although I loved Donald....

So it's funny to see how for you, Penfeather, (whose language skills far surpass the average reader's, I've no doubt) this book won points for its "elegant, pitch-perfect prose", and for me this prose was the thing that let me down.

Back to the story. It's been done before, of course, lots of times. Even the book's conspirators refer to the Tichborne case, the prisoner of Zenda and Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar. It's a great plot, an instant winner I should say. Nonetheless, I found myself bored quite often. Several scenes were drawn out to the limit. Conversations went on forever, and even the descriptions of surroundings, nature and such, took double the sentences they should have taken, in my opinion, of course.

My final criticism is directed at the legal issues concerning the grandfather's Will. It was discussed a lot, but in the end I think the author either messed up a bit or failed to clarify a few things.

My verdict: a 6 out of 10

I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the book. I suppose that's why they make cars in so many models and colors! Wink

I don't find Mary Stewart's prose hard to follow at all; can you give me a couple of examples of passages where she is in danger of leaving the reader behind?

This brings up an interesting, if inexhaustible, subject. Namely, what the reader brings to a book. I admit that I think of reading a book as a collaboration between reader and author; we both must bring something to the experience. Where does one draw the line? How does an author gauge the limitations of the "average reader"? It is also possible that reading levels have changed (for the worse) since Mary Stewart wrote her books.

In many gothics, especially those written by Stewart and Holt, there are references to things like classical mythology, literature, poetry, history . . . things which require a certain amount of education on the part of the reader. The author assumes that she addresses an audience with a certain amount of reading background. Perhaps nowadays this is a dangerous presumption. I know that in today's marketplace, in which books are constantly competing with any number of forms of instant gratification, publishers are wary of challenging the reader with any word, phrase, or concept with which he may be unfamiliar. If today's "distracted" reader encounters a word or turn of phrase he doesn't understand, he has -- at any time and place -- his iPad, iPhone, iPod, iWhatever, to turn to (not to look up the word or phrase, but to provide him with less challenging entertainment).

I don't mean this is you. Your own writing level is far above average. But if you really found Stewart's prose impenetrable, her tone arrogant, her storytelling faulty, I can't argue with that. That's your personal reaction, and simply a matter of taste and opinion. I do admit that I value style in an author more than most readers seem to, and can forgive certain mechanical flaws if I am seduced by the sensuous verbal surface.

As for not being able to imagine Mary Stewart telling stories around a campfire, I can't imagine James Joyce doing that either (although maybe here I'm defeating my own argument -- bad example!). I guess what I mean is that I did find The Ivy Tree straightforward, and I do find Mary Stewart to be a good storyteller. Sure, her prose is elegant, but I don't think it's affected or "purple."

At any rate, I hope you won't completely give up on Stewart. Have you read any other books written by her? Nine Coaches Waiting is very popular still, and you might find that it redeems her to you.

Happy reading!
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#4
Thank you for replying so elaborately. I love a good discussion, so here goes:

What I dislike about Mary Stewart's prose, especially in this book, is the way she uses too many words, doesn't come to the point soon enough, and what she does say is distracting. There's a deliberate vagueness which is probably intended to keep the readers guessing and which I find frustrating. I've tried to select some paragraphs to illustrate this, but in this case, in this book, the whole point of the story is keeping the reader wondering about what's what and who's who. Perhaps that's why here my frustration was bigger and I didn't like the book as much as others I've read by Mary Stewart. I've probably read all of them, but most of it is forgotten after a few decades, so this is my second time around. Probably I'm more critical now than I used to be in my teens, which is caused by the bigger competition: so many books, so little time.

Well, here are some examples:

Quote:He made a movement of such violent impatience that I was startled into remembering the perilous volcano-edge of the last few days. I had gone so far; let us have peace, I thought.

Quote:I shook myself impatiently. Con, let's face it, was a tough customer. Keep that straight, and keep out of it...

Quote:"Don't worry. She won't have gone far. No such luck."

In all these three examples there's this final rather vague sentence that makes us wonder at the heroine's train of thought, which isn't explained consequently. You need to guess at her meaning, but can not be sure.


Quote:I believe I was trying to clear my mind, to think of the problem as it now faced me — Julie and Donald, Con and Lisa — but for some reason, standing there staring into the dark, I found I was thinking about Adam Forrest's hands . . .
Some seconds later I traced the thought to its cause; some memory of that first sunlit evening when I had seen the cat pounce in the long grass, and some creature had cried out with pain and fear.
There had been bees in the roses, then; now it was the steady hum of machinery that filled the darkness, unaltering, unfaltering in its beat . . .
"History repeats itself," Lisa had said.
Something tugged at the skirts of my mind, jerked me awake. A formless, frightening idea became certainty.

Vague, poetic, yuck.

I agree with what you said about the collaboration between reader and author. I admit I like it when I can share an inside joke with the author or easily understand a reference; I suppose it makes me feel clever. Smile On the other hand: If there are too many jokes/references that I don't get, I feel stupid and resent that the author apparently knows more than I do and is showing off. So an author should be careful to keep the level of supposedly shared knowledge in check. Mary Stewart knows a lot about poetry and likes to use quotations, at the start of each chapter as well as randomly in the text. I myself don't like poetry at all and do not even read the ones at the start of the chapters. I don't mind reading a few quotations or references to famous plays, but it shouldn't be overdone. Again, an author needs to walk a fine line here. Also she shouldn't shy away from explaining a bit more. In fact, having something explained in a nice way, even if I knew it already, will endear the author to me. And if I didn't know, it'll be good to have learned something. I remember the first time I heard of "Hadrian's wall" was in a novel and I appreciated to learn right there what it actually is.

I like to feel the heroine is talking to me, taking me into her confidence, and I don't like speaking with people who think they are cleverer than I am and want to show off. And in this particular book, like I said, there's not much confidentiality between the heroine and the readers she's addressing because we need to be kept in the dark as to who she really is.

Now for something completely different:

I think I own all of Mary Stewart's books as paperback, but I'm reading them as ebooks on my Bebook because there I can adjust to a bigger font. My eyes aren't what they used to be. In order to be sure about some text I needed for above quotes (OCRing has to be thoroughly checked) I got my dead tree copy and found a big discrepancy. The ebook was apparently made from a scan of the 15th print in 1980 by Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. My own book is a Fawcett Crest Book, I think 43th print, which I bought new around 1995.
From now on: Huge Spoiler Alert!!!!
It's about the scene in the cooler house between Adam and Annabel late at night after Julie's rescue. In the English version Annabel makes a confession to Adam, and in the U.S. version she doesn't! Adam just walks off in a temper. However, the next day when she goes out riding, she and Adam meet and apparently he "knows". Did he have an epiphany in his sleep?
In both books the next scene has Con turning up, who has listened to the discussion between Adam and Annabel. He was very pleased by Annabel's performance, so I should say the British version is accurate, and the U.S. version is bad, very bad!!


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#5
Again, these really are matters of personal taste, and thankfully there are other books to read. It does seem, however (and I hope you won't take offense at my saying so) that you are making personal assumptions about the motives behind Mary Stewart's prose style (e.g., interpreting her extravagant imagery and vocabulary as "showing off"). This reaction is foreign to me. I don't believe for a minute that Mary Stewart's intention was ever to belittle the reader with her high-flying wit or make him feel stupid; to the contrary, I feel that she thought very highly of her reader. She assumes he can meet her on her own ground -- and that is flattering, not demeaning.

You said yourself that you dislike poetry. Categorically. If that's the case, Mary Stewart would naturally not be your cup of tea.

I'm not sure what you mean by "vagueness" either. I enjoy ambiguity of meaning and innuendo in what is, after all, a mystery story.

Perhaps this all boils down to right brain vs. left brain thinking.

At any rate, I'm sorry you found this book so irksome. To each his own.
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#6
I said Mary Stewart is showing off her language skills, meaning she often places more emphasis on writing beautiful poetic lines than on getting the story across. Readers who prefer reading beautiful poetic lines to getting drawn into a story, will prefer these kind of novels. I'm not one of them; I find it distracting. I read a novel for the story; if I'd wanted poetry I would read poetry.

I never said Mary Stewart's intention was to belittle the reader or make him feel stupid; these are your words alone. It would rather be biting the hand that feeds you, don't you think?

What I mean by "vagueness" is exactly what you think: ambiguity of meaning, innuendo, hinting, implicating, intimating, in other words: not being straightforward. You enjoy it, I don't.
And as I've said several times before: in this particular book the heroine won't be straightforward with her readers because we need to keep guessing who she is. In most books written in first person format, the reader will be able to emphatize with the heroine because she knows what she knows and feels what she feels. Not here. And that's why Mary Stewart resorts to vagueness here more than in her other mystery stories. And that's why I liked this novel less than her other mystery stories.
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#7
(07-03-2011, 06:48 AM)Charybdis Wrote: I never said Mary Stewart's intention was to belittle the reader or make him feel stupid; these are your words alone. It would rather be biting the hand that feeds you, don't you think?

Sorry, I was paraphrasing, albeit inaccurately. Here are the exact words to which I was attempting to respond:

Quote:If there are too many jokes/references that I don't get, I feel stupid and resent that the author apparently knows more than I do and is showing off. So an author should be careful to keep the level of supposedly shared knowledge in check.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that you seem to place the burden on the author, rather than the reader. Why exactly should the author keep the "level of supposedly shared knowledge in check"? I don't think there's anything really all that abstruse or esoteric in these references and poetic allusions. It seems to me that an author should simply write at her natural level, feeling free to draw from her own fund of knowledge and stylistic resources, and assume that the appropriate readership will follow (in Stewart's case it did, and has).

Anyway . . . I think we're agreed on the major points (i.e., de gustibus non est disputandem) but we are in danger of chasing our tails over the minor Jesuitical differences. Big Grin

Since you have read most of Stewart's other books, are there some you enjoyed more? Or is she in general just not your thing? (I tend to prefer her earlier books to the later, although I like the "Arthurian" series very much too. I read one of her very late books, The Stormy Petrel, and I did feel that it was weaker than the work from her heyday.)
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#8
Aha, I see where the misunderstanding arose. Your second quote is from a paragraph where I agreed with you in general that there should be a collaboration between reader and author. I gave my reaction to the amount and difficulty of inside jokes/references in general. I didn't say that I couldn't understand Mary Stewart's jokes/references and consequently felt stupid or resentful. She just used quotations, and you usually don't need to know the poets or books they came from to understand how the quote applies to the situation.

But if she had overdone it, had referred to poets or books or whatever that most readers would never have heard of, keeping them ignorant of her specific meaning, then I indeed would have felt frustration and resentment. The book I read before The Ivy Tree was Wingarden by Elsie Lee. In my review you can see that I hated her use of some inside jokes because I didn't grasp their meaning right away. I needed Google to find out that fan-tan is a game like mah-jong, but when I searched plon-plon, I only found that it's a nickname for Napoleon Bonaparte, which in my opinion made no sense at all.

So I do lay the burden on the author: she needs to know her audience. Therefore, she does indeed need to keep the level of supposedly shared knowledge in check. For example, if an author of gothic romances knows a lot about filately because it's one of her hobbies, she shouldn't out of the blue mention Wuhu Local Post and think the reader knows what she's talking about. On the other hand if she's writing a book specifically for stamp collectors, Wuhu Local Post might need no further clarification.

So to be perfectly clear: I don't think Mary Stewart made references that were too difficult for the average reader to grasp. I do find that in this book she uses a poetic, detached kind of language that does not speak to me, an average reader.

Phew.

Smile

As to your question re other Stewart's I read: so far I've only reread Nine Coaches Waiting and Touch Not the Cat, which I both liked better than The Ivy Tree. The only book I remember something about from my first reading ages ago is Madam Will You Talk; I liked the car chases in France. I'll have to tackle that one next, I suppose.
BTW, right now I'm rereading Victoria Holt's The Mask of the Enchantress, because that also is about taking over someone else's identity. See how they compare....


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#9
(04-18-2011, 04:45 AM)Penfeather Wrote: [A short review with no spoilers.]

The Ivy Tree is vintage Mary Stewart, a wonderful novel written in the elegant, pitch-perfect prose that sets this author apart.

Beginning with what would seem to be a hackneyed storyline -- a young woman is hired to impersonate an heiress -- Stewart pulls a tour de force that approaches the ingenuity of Agatha Christie. I don't want to give anything away, though, so I'll say nothing specific about the plot.

I would not classify this book as a Gothic. Stewart's milieu is really Romantic Suspense, although readers of Gothics are likely to enjoy this book. Apart from the well-defined characters and romantic sweep, the virtuosity of the plotting itself makes this book one of Stewart's best.

If you want to be really dazzled, read this book and then go back and read the first few pages again. Amazing how all the clues to the mystery are right there out in the open!

Oh I SO agree, Penfeather...I was BLOWN clear away when I saw the complete circle...I went back and re read the first couple pages, then the end again...it was all there cryptically, the clues to the entire story...just GENIUS!

The Ivy Tree elevated Mary Stewart in my mind to a much higher level than I had considered her before...truly amazing writer...the fact, too, that she delivered this story by writing it in first person, too...that is another achievement in my mind...

I gave this book an A+ and believe that even people less than enamoured with the genre would be impressed by this one!
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#10
Personally, I did not like the Ivy Tree because I could not sympathize with any of the characters.

Having said that, I still love Mary Stewart and her style. Yes, I agree with Charybdis that her writing is sometimes above my level of education with its literary references, but it gives me respect for her intellect. I do not find her arrogant - I believe it is just her and she was not aware that there are some ignoramuses amongst her readers.
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