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Saturday, February 07, 2009

cover of 'Nine Coaches Waiting'

Perhaps the best of all of Mary Stewart's many suspenseful romance novels. Linda Martin has been living in England for the last 10 years, ever since she was orphaned. She returns to France (where she was born and spent her childhood years before her parents died) to take a job as a governess caring for the nine year old Comte de Valmy, Philippe. Her employers are Philippe's aunt and uncle: the beautiful but cold and distant Heloise, and the virile, forceful Leon-- a handsome, powerful man who was crippled in an accident years before, and since then has devoted his great, wheelchair-bound energies to running the Valmy estate. Because Linda is so set on getting back to France and away from her dismal life in England, shes conceals from her employers that she is half French and speaks the language quite well, and she tells herself it was just a silly impulse; but when things start to go wrong around her young charge, the situation begins to seems more sinister, and she wonders if her instincts were right.

There are lots of literary allusions throughout the text, and even the title is a reference to a line of poetry (where a young woman is being seduced by riches and luxury, but is hurrying "to the devil"). The allusions that are woven into the text don't seem as out of place as they might, though, because they are a part of the main character and narrator. At one point, Linda reflects to herself,

"I was sharply grateful to Daddy for making poetry a habit with me. ... Daddy had been right. Poetry was awfully good material to think with."
This is part of what makes the novel work so well: Linda and Leon are both aware of the similarity of their situation to that of Jane Eyre, and Leon suggests to others that he is a fallen angel, Milton's devil.

Soon, Linda meets and then falls in love with Leon's son, Raoul. Like his father, he is dark and handsome and powerful, and can turn on his immense charm at will. The relationship between Linda and Raoul (and people's perceptions of it, the servant's gossip) plays perfectly into the plot of the book, and become part of the plots against Philippe. The most difficult thing for Linda is that, she doesn't know if she can trust the man she loves. She still loves him, and if it were only her, she would take the chance, but when she tries to look at events and the evidence she has heard objectively, she sees that it could be read either way, and she dare not risk a child's life on the impulse of her own love. How she deals with this struggle and the outcome of her decisions is believable and touching.

It occurred to me after finishing the book that all the main characters are orphans, to some extent. Linda and Philippe are obviously so: their parents are dead, and they have to be cared for by people who don't care about them (or maybe even hate them and wish them harm). But Raoul is also a kind of orphan-- his English mother died long ago, and his crazy, hurtful, megalomaniac father may be worse than no father at all.

I don't think I noticed it before, but the chapters of the book are grouped and labeled as coaches, starting with the first and working up to the ninth. As far as I can tell, each of these sections actually does have a significant "coach" or car ride: Linda's taxi ride in Paris to see the old apartment where she had lived with her parent, the silent ride from Paris out to the country and Valmy, the fateful first meeting with Raoul on the mist-covered bridge, the outing with Raoul, the nerve-wracking car chase in the dark, Linda's final meeting with Raoul on the same bridge in a scene that echoes their first encounter perfectly. This structure perfectly plays out the title and its reference to a young woman being hurried to the devil.

This is my mother's favorite of all Mary Stewart's romance novels (maybe of any of her novels); I think it is probably the first one I ever read.

Title:Nine Coaches Waiting
Author:Mary Stewart
Date published:1958
Number of pages:342
Notes:repeat reading; gift from Jane


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