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.