I read a romance and I liked it: Mary Stewart’s Madam, will you Talk?

Madam will you TalkSpeaking of taking risks, it’s easy to take risks when the book is less than 200 pages long and you got it for free in your apartment’s laundry room. Risk-taking becomes even more manageable when your bestie, who you know is smarter than everyone else in the world, tells you the author is generally amazing.

Alright, so Mary Stewart’s 1955 lady romance Madam, will you Talk? is a number of things, but a risk wasn’t one of them. This isn’t the sort of book I would normally read, although I do think this early 1970s cover is one of the most sophisticated pieces of art I’ve seen. But it doesn’t at all convey how delightfully schizophrenic Madam, will you Talk? is; it’s not merely the sort of book I would normally pass over, it’s like nothing else I’ve read before–even though all the elements are familiar.

This is a suspense novel. There are shady goings-on, a mystery, murderous plots are whispered of on ramparts, car chases, kidnappings, violence!!!

Stewart’s heroine, Charity Selborne, finds herself on a vacation that doesn’t prove to be very restful. Settling into a hotel in Provence with a dear friend, she is not allowed to relax for more than approximately half an hour before portents begin demanding to be noticed. But there’s no reason, initially, to take them seriously:

The whole affair began so very quietly. When I wrote, that summer, and asked my friend Louise if she would come with me on a car trip to Provence, I had no idea that I might be issuing an invitation to danger. And when we arrived one afternoon, after a hot but leisurely journey, at the enchanting little walled city of Avignon, we felt in that mood of pleasant weariness mingled with anticipation which marks, I believe, the beginning of every normal holiday.

But this is no normal holiday, oh no. It is going to be thrillingly frightening, deliciously mysterious, emotionally exhausting but ultimately satisfying. Also, full of Stewart’s unnaturally compelling foreshadowing:

….most of the actors in the tragedy were at that moment assembled in this neat, unpretentious little Provencal hotel[.] All but one, that is, and he, with murder in his mind, was not so very far away, moving, under that blazing southern sun, in the dark circle of his own personal hell. A circle that narrowed, gradually, upon the Hotel Tistet-Vedene, Avignon.

In spite of the Approaching Doom, Charity does, in some ways, have a normal holiday. She eats and drinks, goes on drives and walks, and visits ruins. She lounges; she is languorous; she safely observes what goes on around her–for a time.

There are long, elegant, sunny passages detailing the beauty of the French countryside–so many, in fact, that I wondered at points if I’d lost my way and fallen into a travel narrative. Well, I had, actually–and one fit for any high-end travel magazine you like. A travelogue designed for ladies who, in the 50s, were perhaps unlikely to make it to the south of France, and so needed someone deft with a pen and an eye for just so details to describe them.

This novel is also a romance: i.e., Not My Thing. Many, many moons ago, I once wrote an undergraduate outlining the myriad ways in which Harlequin romances were no different than other forms of anti-feminist pornography. That essay was so good, it even convinced me! I had to read a selection of Harlequins for it, of course, and I hated them with the hate of a thousand angry wasps waking up in early spring to find that not only is it still snowing, but that a condo is being built next door as well.

Stewart’s novel contained many of the elements I identified as injurious to the aims of feminism in romance fiction. For example, having been kidnapped by the man (Richard Byron–yes, really!) she believes to be the murderer at the centre of all the mysterious goings-on, she inevitably finds herself falling for him.

If Stewart hadn’t been such a bloody brilliant writer, I might have put the book down. I thought of how hackneyed falling for a man threatening violence was and felt irritated; but then I considered that it was possible Stewart invented that particular convention of romance, and paused. The writing was fantastic, so I kept going.

I kept going in part because Madam, will you Talk? is also a food memoir of sorts. Perhaps not of real food, but Stewart’s descriptions of the gastronomic delights Charity indulges in are worthy of anything written by MFK Fisher. And they were a sign, too, a portent for the reader not only that Charity was beginning to find Richard irresistible, but that if they could share excellent meals together in a hostage situation, maybe things weren’t what they seemed…

The following occurs after Charity, having for days dodged the relentless Byronic convicted murderer and angry dad (Charity knows, but won’t tell him, where his 13-year-old son is), is caught and they’ve spent a night (platonic!) in a hotel room together. He makes her eat:

I heard him speaking in French. I supposed he was ordering food. And presently at my elbow I heard the chink of silver, and opened my eyes to see the big glittering trolley of hors d’ceuvre with its hovering attendant.

Richard Byron said something to him, and without waiting for me to speak, the man served me from the tray. I remember still those exquisite fluted silver dishes, each with its load of dainty colours… there were anchovies and tiny gleaming silver fish in red sauce, and savoury butter in curled strips of fresh lettuce; there were caviare and tomato and olives green and black, and small golden-pink mushrooms and cresses and beans. The waiter heaped my plate, and filled another glass with white wine. I drank half a glassful without a word, and began to eat. I was conscious of Richard Byron’s eyes on me, but he did not speak.

The waiters hovered beside us, the courses came, delicious and appetizing, and the empty plates vanished as if by magic. I remember red mullet, done somehow with lemons, and a succulent golden-brown fowl bursting with truffles and flanked by tiny peas, then a froth of ice and whipped cream dashed with kirsch, and the fine smooth caress of the wine through it all. Then, finally, apricots and big black grapes, and coffee. The waiter removed the little silver filtres, and vanished, leaving us alone in our alcove.

Oh, Mary, now you’re just showing off! Yes, I get it–you can write, literally, anything. I was, and am, appropriately jealous. But this scene is not just a conspicuous display of excess talent.

It’s also where the strange threads of suspense and romance begin to coalesce, where Charity begins to understand that she’s misunderstood something–because, although neither she nor Stewart say so directly, it’s obvious that someone with taste as thoughtful and refined as Richard Byron’s couldn’t possibly engage in something so blunt and gross as murder…

I won’t tell you anymore. You know by now whether or not you would enjoy this book, I think. Either her writing will win you over through everything or it won’t. It won me over. The story, the mystery part I mean, may very well be absurd but I didn’t care in the end. The writing, but particularly the food writing segments (even though I can’t and/or wouldn’t eat much of what she describes) were simply irresistible to me. I will read everything Stewart has written, except for the later stuff, which my bestie (the canary in the coalmine of my forays into mystery and suspense) tells me is dreadful.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. heidenkind says:

    I can’t believe you’ve never read Mary Stewart until now. I grew up reading my mom’s Mary Stewart collection every summer. My favorite is The Ivy Tree, but The Moonspinners is also really good (and there’s a hilarious movie adaptation by Disney starring Haley Mills that you HAVE to watch).

    1. Colleen says:

      Well, life is long–there’s time to get caught up! I did read The Crystal Cave years ago, but it seems incredible to me that it was written by the same person that wrote Madam, will you Talk? The latter was engaging and funny…and the CC, well, not.

      1. heidenkind says:

        Yeah, I had pretty much the same reaction.

  2. Ah this is a blast – sorta – from my past. The thing is that I’ve never read Mary Stewart but most of my girlfriends did. They read Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer while I, not being into suspense and historical fiction, read Neville Shute. (He was a bit historical but only back to WW2 and that didn’t count). I sometimes feel I should read a Mary Stewart just to round out my reading, but I probably won’t get around to it.

    1. Colleen says:

      Well, if you see one of her novels at a yard sale for 25 cents sometime, it wouldn’t be money ill spent. And they’re short, so….

      1. Sounds like a plan.

  3. winneyb says:

    My absolute favorite of hers in The Moonspinners, which I read the first time about 30 years ago. In fact, it inspired me to write a tribute novel set in Greece in 1975. Mine isn’t a quarter good as hers, however. Also, I really want to go visit Greece after the way she brought it to life! The Gabriel Hounds is pretty good too, and Airs Above the Ground.

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