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."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.
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.
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
I Prefer Reading Review
One Literature Nut Review