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Retro Friday Review: My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.


I've been dreaming of Greece. I've never been there myself, much to my continual dismay, and so it remains at the very top of my list when it comes to countries I need to visit next. Lately, I've been doing some research on the country for work. Hence the dreams. And whenever I dream of Greece, I remember my original copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology that I read cover to cover several times over. And I remember Mary Stewart and the wonderful mysteries she set there. From The Moon-Spinners to This Rough Magic to My Brother Michael, I read them and drift from Crete to Corfu to Delphi in a haze of lemon trees, windswept isles, and footprints of the gods. I've been in love with this place for a long time, and I fervently hope I get to travel there someday. But for now I shall have to be content with my battered copies of Mary Stewart's novels and the adventures her heroines take in this place I long to see. It's so hard for me to choose which of her three Greek books I prefer. They're all splendid and it most likely depends on my mood at the time. The Moon-Spinners has, perhaps, the best mystery, This Rough Magic the swooniest male lead (and all that Shakespeare), and My Brother Michael my favorite title and lady. And, of course, Delphi. So today, you get Delphi, Michael, and Miss Camilla Haven. Not necessarily in that order.

Camilla Haven is sitting alone in a cafe in Athens, bemoaning the lack of action in her life. Having recently broken off her engagement to larger-than-life Phillip, she goes ahead on holiday to Greece all by her lonesome hoping it will be good for her. All that sun and history and good food. But it turns out it's just lonely, albeit in a spectacular setting. Until a stranger approaches her with a set of car keys and a whispered message of urgency. Someone named Simon is in Delphi in need of the car. It is, the man assures her, a matter of life and death. She must take it to him. Several rounds of language-stilted protests ensue. And before she knows it, Camilla is behind the wheel of the big black car and on the road to Delphi. On her way there, she does, in fact, meet a man named Simon, who is in Delphi trying to decipher the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his brother Michael more than a decade earlier during World War II. Armed with Michael's last letter and three gold sovereigns, Camilla and Simon set out for the site of his brother's death. Simon is convinced Michael was on the track of something important, and before long they begin to realize they're not the only ones who are still looking for whatever Michael found.

Lady Stewart is so great at first lines and openings. The first passage of My Brother Michael:
"Nothing ever happens to me."

I wrote the words slowly, looked at them for a moment with a little sigh, then put my ballpoint pen down on the cafe table and rummaged in my handbag for a cigarette.

As I breathed the smoke in I looked about me. It occurred to me, thinking of that last depressed sentence in my letter to Elizabeth, that enough was happening at the moment to satisfy all by the most adventure-hungry. That is the impression Athens gives you. Everyone is moving, talking, gesticulating--but particularly talking. The second one remembers in Athens is not the clamour of pneumatic drill or even the age-old sound of chisels chipping away at the Pentelic marble which is still the cheapest stone for building . . . what one remembers about Athens is the roar of talking. Up to your high hotel window, above the smell of dust and the blare of traffic it comes, surging like the sea below the temple at Sunium--the sound of Athenian voices arguing, laughing, talk-talk-talking, as once they talked the world into shape in the busy colonnades of the Agora, not so very far from where I sat.
Within the space of two paragraphs I not only feel for the main character, but I feel as though I'm sitting there with her. I can hear it and smell it and taste it. I'm in Athens wondering how in the world I got there. This is one of Ms. Stewart's most atmospheric and action-packed novels. From negotiating the hairpin turns to Delphi, to wandering through ancient amphitheaters with handsome Classics teachers, to scrambling through caves, enough happens to Camilla within the space of these 240 pages to last a lifetime, let alone one brief holiday. I love Camilla's audacity. She's always lived in other people's shadows. And yet she goes on the trip to Greece. She takes the car keys. She cares about this Simon she does not know. And speaking of Simon? I'm excessively fond of him. For his part, he never casts Camilla in shadow, his or anything else's. He quotes Euripides and courts death in the name of his brother, and he accepts Camilla's strange story at face value and the two of them are off like a shot in no time. So much about this novel is based on mistaken identities, years of subterfuge, and bad blood. And I eat it up with a spoon every time I re-read it.  I am fairly swept away at the richness of it all. And, as I return to it, the romance in this one appeals more and more. Hints of it are established from glance one. But hints is all they are at first. This is a relationship that builds slowly and surely and to great effect. Truly all of Mary Stewart's strengths, from intrepid women to mouth-watering locales to heart-pounding suspense, come together in this exciting tale. Withe one crazy, climactic ending to top it off. Whenever I return to My Brother Michael,  it almost comes as a bit of a shock that I've never actually been to Delphi, that I'm not returning to a place I know so well and people whose hands I've held in mine. A classy, perennial favorite.

Retro Friday Roundup
A Girl, Books and Other Things reviews The Wedding Planner's Daughter by Coleen Murtagh Paratore
Good Books and Good Wine reviews Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Chachic's Book Nook reviews Graceling by Kristin Cashore
One Librarian's Book Reviews reviews The River Between Us by Richard Peck

Linkage
Bookwitch Review
I Prefer Reading Review
One Literature Nut Review

Comments

  1. Anonymous11:34 AM

    If this is the same Mary Stewart who wrote the Crystal Cave, I'm doubly excited about Crystal Cave.

    If not, My Brother Michael sounds great. I love that opening and you are write, it's so atmospheric. And atmosphere I think really heightens my enjoyment of a book.

    And yay for a developing romance, that's the best when it's hinted at and occurs logically, not instalove.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love comparing covers of the same book. It's so interesting how different attitudes and emotions towards the book can be formed just by what the cover looks like.

    Also, I’m a new follower—wonderful blog! Stop by my blog and follow me too? :) http://rachelbrookswrites.blogspot.com/

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  3. Ohhh, I love this book so much! After Nine Coaches Waiting and Thornyhold it's my favorite of Mary Stewart's books. I've never been to Greece either, but she brings it to life so well I feel like I know what she's talking about when she describes the way things look and smell and feel.

    It's been too long since I last re-read My Brother Michael - I have to fix that soon!

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  4. Denise3:29 PM

    I'm so glad you featured Mary Stewart and her wonderful books. It's hard to find such intelligent writing and well-told stories. She is my absolute favorite writer. Nine Coaches Waiting is fantastic!!!
    (Although not set in Greece!)

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  5. I think the last time I read this book I was in the 6th grade, and I remember that beginning specifically. One of Stewart's best openings evar! Simon's also great (although I still prefer The Moonspinners overall).

    ReplyDelete
  6. Oh so that's where you got the image for the Retro Friday icon, I've always wondered. :P Added this one to my wishlist because of your wonderful review (and 5-star rating on Goodreads). I've never read anything by Mary Stewart but I've seen her recommended several times.

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  7. How could I have missed My Brother Michael!! I remember my mother reading the Moon Spinners to me and my brother when we were little around the Franklin stove through long winter evenings.

    I have to say, in another retro shout out, Gerald Durrell has Stewart beat hands down on atmosphere--though in the books I was thinking of in Corfu, mainly. In My Family and Other Animals, he writes of growing up after his brother (Lawrence Durrell, the author, by the way) drags his family to Corfu for their health. Young Gerald wanders the countryside, even then developing his obsession with flora and fauna, but especially fauna in heartrending, magic detail. As the title suggests, however, what he initially believed would be a book studying the gorgeous Corfu animal life, his eccentric family horn in and take up their fair share of space.

    His following books trace his life as a Zoo Collector. Back before exciting tools like tranq darts, someone still went out there and fetched animals from the wilderness for zoos. That was his job and he takes you with him--every animal caught, animal bite, every miscommunication, every wilderness camp.

    The single blot I should mention is that the books--most of his books--were written quite a while ago. He is quite White, and while he usually has a deep affection for the people of the country he visits, he can at times get a little too condescending or patriarchal about those he is staying with.

    Sorry for the rant. Talking about Greece and Corfu brought back so many memories! Now I need My Brother Michael.

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  8. Moonspinners for the win, I say!

    Although The Crystal Cave is the one and only Merlin story for me, and so that might be my favorite of her corpus of books as a whole, and not just the romantic suspense ones.

    ReplyDelete
  9. April, the very same. She's pretty famous for her Arthurian books (they really are the best). But I tend to reread her mysteries more often. So romantic.

    Rachel, isn't it? These three are quite different. My favorite is definitely the one on the left. Thanks for following!

    Emily, yay! Another fan. :) I haven't read THORNYHOLD in ages. Must get on that.

    Denise, oh, man. NINE COACHES WAITING may be my very favorite. It's so hard to pin it down for sure.

    heidenkind, I adore THE MOONSPINNERS. I like it better and better each time I read it. It, too, has a great opening.

    Chachic, yup. When I was searching around it seemed to fit the bill. :) I hope you do like her when you get around to giving her a go.

    Bets, what a wonderful memory! And I have seriously been meaning to read My Family and Other Animals for ages now. I'm so glad to hear you sing its praises. And I know what you mean about some of the stereotypes not aging well. I'm fond of several books where that is the case and it always gives me a twinge. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Charlotte, hehe. Awesome. Nikki and Mark. Love them. I agree with you on her Merlin books. They are absolute standouts in the genre.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Anonymous5:23 AM

    so fun to see the three covers- I have had them all at various times. I too prefer the one on the left. Mary Stewart is responsible for a lot of the traveling I have done- certainly to Crete, and Corfu, and Delphi! as well as the south of France- Nimes, etc. She was certainly with me in all those places. Am just now re-reading Moonspinners having just come back from Istanbul, where the lemon trees made me think of Nicola. But the main reason I am reading Moonspinners is because I don't have a copy of My Brother Michael with me now and can't find an ebook of it!

    but one thing really strikes me now- how very young all the heroines and heroes are! I now look at Mark age 26 as a boy, not a man. oh well, aging......but still wonderful stories.

    it was so fun to read this review and the comments- nice to share a bit of Stewart fan-dom with others. thanks again for this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, I long to go to Crete, Corfu, and Delphi! I have the feeling I would stand there at the amphitheater just suffused with her beautiful words and scenes.

      They really are all quite young, aren't they? I remember when I first read them they seemed so sophisticated and smart. Now that I'm older I find myself really appreciating the ones who are or were married. Experience . . .

      So glad you stopped by. I adore talking Stewart with fellow fans.

      Delete
  11. Just stumbled across your post, as I'm reliving My Brother Michael for
    the umpteenth time just now, and blogging about it, and looking for an
    image of a book cover. I was so sad to hear of Mary Stewart's death last
    month - but it has made me realise how many more people than I realised
    re-read and love her romantic thrillers. Anyway, I just wanted to say
    that I have been to Delphi, and it was this book that sent me there on
    my very first overseas trip. I often joke that I am touring the world,
    trailing in Mary Stewart's footsteps, although I have not yet been to
    Crete or Corfu. (This Rough Magic is another of my ultimate favourites.)

    ReplyDelete

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