Reacquainting myself with the Mistress of Romantic Suspense…

Confession: I don’t hate ‘Blue Monday’, or even January. I’ve always regarded January as a continuation of the Christmas period… the decorations are often still up,  people aren’t quite firing on all cylinders after the holidays, and the cold nights are perfect for cuddling up and- my favourite thing of all- reading books. I have issues with February, but that’s another story for another time.

But this January has been a little bittersweet, to be honest. My book has been released and the reviews are- so far- very kind. One of my favourite people turned 40 and we had an amazing night out to celebrate. But this month has also seen the loss of the darling Doris O’Connor, author extraordinaire and mother hen, who succumbed to cancer (#fuckcancer) after the bravest fight I’ve ever seen. Doris and I had been friends for years, and I owe her so much, and will miss her dearly.

I’m new to grief, in a way. I’ve been lucky so far, and most of the people I love are well and healthy and happy. I’ve grieved for lost friendships (hard) and lost relationships (harder) and even a lost baby (painful), but I’ve never really lost anyone unexpectedly or so young as Doris was. My husband has been good, letting me cry when I need to and pouring wine liberally on the weekend Doris died. He lost his Mum back in May, and has spent months coming to terms with her loss and grief itself. It was odd particularly at Christmas. We spent two days with his Dad at his house, and it was strange being there for and for my mother-in-law not to be there. But my sister-in-law and husband were admirable in their grief, smiling through the day and playing with the children, exchanging gifts and understanding that life goes on. Grief, it seems, is a fluid thing.

And like anything else, when I’m unhappy or hurt, I retreat into books.

My husband’s mother, as well as being a preacher and counsellor, was a fantastic reader. While I was there, my father-in-law and sister-in-law emphatically told me to take any of her books that I wanted. In the end, I only took one: a Mary Stewart novel I was missing from my collection.

Mary Stewart (Lady Stewart, though she never used her title) like Netta Muskett and Nina Lambert, had more than a little influence on my own decision to write romance novels. For one thing, she was a Northern girl like myself, hailing from Sunderland. She was also, like myself, a true romantic. She and her husband were married for over fifty years, until his death separated them. As a believer in the longevity of true love, I adore this story.

I read my first Stewart book aged about 20, when I was working as a waitress for a hotel. I worked both the breakfast and evening shifts, and quite often would sleep at the hotel in an empty room rather than go home. Once, in a break, I wandered around outside until I came across a second-hand book shop, where I found a rather tatty copy of ‘The Ivy Tree’ by Stewart.

I read that book over about a week, between waitressing shifts, utterly engrossed. I was a solitary creature (I still am, to be honest, requiring time alone frequently in order to stay sane) and most of my co-workers gave up on me, realising that I wouldn’t be torn from my book.

Not until I’d reached the end, at any rate.

If you haven’t read ‘The Ivy Tree’ I beg you to go out right now and get a copy. Because this book is superb, and was my first experience of the ‘unreliable narrator’ trope. It’s told, unbelievably, in the first person, and Stewart makes you wholeheartedly believe everything our heroine tells us… up until the last second, when she whips the comfort blanket of a story away, and makes you realise that you have to re-read the entire novel to understand the very blatant hints she has been dropping throughout the duration of the novel.

After ‘The Ivy Tree’, I made a point of picking up Stewart’s entire collection (most is happily available in e-version now). But I’d missed one or two over the years, and so I was delighted to find the last one I hadn’t read on my mother-in-law’s shelf.

And I read it quickly, before dipping my toes back into the rest of her books. ‘Madam, will you talk?’ Is another of her stories I would definitely recommend, particularly if-like me- you like your romance with a dollop of intrigue.

My husband and I collect signed hardbacks by our favourite authors, and I’m gutted that I never managed to get a copy of any of my books signed by Stewart. She died aged 97, and I’m forever on eBay, trying to justify the cost of a book signed by her (my husband still hasn’t forgiven me for once spending £90 on an out of print romance by Nina Lambert, which wasn’t even signed).

Mary Stewart, in my eyes, will forever be the gold standard of romantic suspense writers.

And if you’re feeling the effects of January this year, I can only recommend a warm cup of coffee, a good armchair, a cosy blanket, and a copy of ‘The Ivy Tree’ to see you through.

That’s what I’ll be doing.xx

brown book page
Photo by Wendy van Zyl on

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