The Ivy Tree

Mary Grey, the narrator of Mary Stewart’s 1961 novel The Ivy Tree, is all alone in the world. She’s come to England from Canada in hopes in making a fresh start, but her funds are limited. One day, as she’s wandering through the countryside along Hadrian’s Wall, she’s accosted by an astonishingly handsome Irishman named Con who mistakes Mary for his cousin Annabel, who ran off eight years ago and is now presumed dead. Mary is startled—and fascinated. Con is beautiful to look at, with his “almost excessive good looks,” but Mary observes something sinister in his manner:

Not Adam, no, this intruder into my demi-Eden. But quite possibly the serpent. He was looking just about as friendly and as safe as a black mamba.

Like Eve, Mary lets her curiosity get the better of her and eventually lets Con and his sister, Lisa, talk her into helping them obtain the inheritance that was supposed to be Annabel’s. If she could impersonate Annabel and convince her dying grandfather to hand over the family farm to Con and Lisa, the poor relations who have kept the farm running, they will give her a share of the inheritance money large enough to live on. Against her better judgment, Mary agrees.

When Mary arrives at the farm, Whitescar, she has no trouble winning over the farm hands and, more important, Annabel’s grandfather and cousin, a lively young woman named Julie. But something keeps her from resting easy in her role.

Stewart keeps readers guessing about all her characters almost from the very start of the novel. On the face of it, the story Mary Grey tells appears clear enough, but what are we to make of Con? Is her fear of him justified? And if she fears him, why would she even go along with this preposterous plan? And once she does, why try to get out of it? Every single action has a cause that could make sense, but it all just feels wrong. There were times when I wasn’t sure whether that feeling of wrongness was a flaw in the writing—perhaps the plot was not as tight as it could be—or whether it was deliberately planted to keep the reader unsettled. Having finished, I can report that  it was almost certainly the latter, but that feeling might have made some secrets too easy to uncover. It’s a hard balance for the suspense writer to strike, keeping secrets hidden without cheating the reader of clues, and whether Stewart succeeds in this will depend on the reader. She played fair, which is the key thing for me, even if it means losing the thrill of surprise.

The Ivy Tree is not a book with any deep themes or anything of much substance to say about life and love and so on. It’s a book of intrigue and peril and secrets to be revealed. The descriptive prose is excellent; Stewart can really set a scene. At times, especially in the descriptions of Con, it gets a little over the top, but that’s part of its charm. It’s a good old-fashioned “thumping good read,” and I enjoyed it very much.

Other reviews: A Work in Progress, A Life in Books

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14 Responses to The Ivy Tree

  1. litlove says:

    I am so relieved to hear you say this. On an impulse, I bought a cheap collection of 10 Mary Stewart novels and was hoping very much they would be reasonable comfort reads. I wasn’t ever thinking they’d provide me with excellent literature, just your basic good read. So glad you enjoyed The Ivy Tree on those terms.

    • Teresa says:

      Sounds like this might be just what you were hoping for then (and I see from the comments below that others have enjoyed her other suspense novels).

  2. Eva says:

    This sounds a bit like The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier! Have you read that? It’s about an Englishman without many social ties and perfect French wandering around France who meets a French nobleman who happens to look just like him. The nobleman takes the Englishman’s identity, so then the Englishman goes over to the estate and tries to figure things out. Anyway, I’m popping this on my wishlist! :)

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t read The Scapegoat, but I’ll add it to my Du Maurier possibilities list.

      It’s terrible that the only Du Maurier novel that I’ve read is Rebecca, which I adored. And I read “The Birds” and loved it but haven’t ventured to her other short fiction. I do have a copy of My Cousin Rachel and won a new collection of her stories from LT this month, so I’m definitely going to try more.

  3. Jenny says:

    I’ve read her Merlin novels, and also This Rough Magic and The Moon-Spinners, both of which are excellent, satisfying thrillers like The Ivy Tree. I’ll put this one on my list — I haven’t read one of hers for ages and it sounds like wonderful fun!

    • Teresa says:

      I adore her Merlin novels (and the Mordred one), but this is the first of her suspense novels that I’ve tried. I’ll keep the ones you mention in mind when I’m ready for more.

  4. JaneGS says:

    I’ve loved to read Mary Stewart stories since I was young and they used to be serialized in my mother’s women’s magazine, complete with what I considered “racy” illustrations. They are dated, but absolutely escapist and fun to read. I read The Ivy Tree a few years ago and also remember the unsettled feeling I had throughout, and was surprised by the ending.

    I also liked her Merlin trilogy, especially The Crystal Cave.

    Stewart is definitely in the vein of Daphne du Maurier–their stories have the same feel and often the same kind of setting.

    • Teresa says:

      The Merlin books are wonderful, but I think my favorite is The Wicked Day, which is more Mordred than Merlin. As I mentioned to Eva, I’ve hardly read any Du Maurier, and this is the first of Stewart’s thrillers that I’ve read. It’s a shame, because I do love this kind of story.

      I did strongly suspect what the secret was and was glad that it turned out to be true; otherwise, some of the hints would feel like sloppiness, and I didn’t know if Stewart’s thriller tend to sloppiness or whether they tend to feature twists.

  5. Judith says:

    It is so wonderful to be reminded of books that I’ve read that were pure spellbinding enchantment. I think The Ivy Tree falls into that category. I read it decades and decades ago, but I simply must read it again.

    Thanks for the reminder!!

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Teresa says:

      You’re welcome. I always enjoy reminders of old favorites, too, and I can see why this one would warrant a revisit. Just rereading the first chapter, I could see subtle little hints at what was to come (There’s even one in the quote I chose for my post.)

  6. Liz says:

    Read, and reread, Stewart with much enjoyment. Oddly, The Ivy Tree was one I liked least, perhaps because Stewart is so insightful about Con. Prefer her analyses of the hero/heroine. Among the tops, The Moonspinners; My Brother Michael (notwithstanding contrived start); This Rough Magic; Madam, Will You Talk; Nine Coaches Waiting; and Airs Above The Ground.

  7. Pingback: The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart (RIP VIII) |

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