Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Book Review - Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
Published by: Chicago Review Press
Publication Date: 1958
Format: Paperback, 342 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

"What do you say about one of your favorite books of all time? I first stumbled on Nine Coaches Waiting when I was in Middle School. It was the library paperback, slim and battered, with a seventies era governess in short skirt and high boots on a narrow path with the bulk of the Chateau de Valmy looming above her. I read it and fell in love: with Linda Martin, the innocent but sensible governess who becomes young Philippe de Valmy’s bulwark against his evil relations; with Gothic novels; with French chateaux; and with enigmatic heroes named Raoul.

Those of you who know Nine Coaches Waiting as well as I will have noticed hints at it in my other books, bits of borrowed lines or names. “No, no, and no.” “Soit.” “Darling, don’t be so Sabine about it.” There was a time when I could recite Nine Coaches chapter and verse and bits and pieces of it still bubble up from my subconscious from time to time.

The Other Daughter was a very conscious invocation of Nine Coaches Waiting, both in the details—my heroine, Rachel, is a nursery governess in France—but also in other, less obvious ways. In writing The Other Daughter, I followed what I think of as the Mary Stewart Rule (also the Nine Coaches Waiting Rule): no matter how absurd or dramatic the situation, the character must be aware of that absurdity and behave with a basic modicum of common sense. If I made my Rachel Woodley half as sensible a character as Linda Martin—in equally absurd circumstances—then I am very well pleased." - Lauren Willig

Linda Martin was born in France and lived their till her parents died suddenly in a plane crash and she went to an English orphanage. Years passed, filled with hard work and loneliness. When an opportunity arises to go back to France as a governess to the Comte de Valmy, the nine-year-old Philippe, Linda doesn't scruple to pretend she is English to Philippe's Aunt Héloïse in order to secure the position. The Château Valmy is located in a remote valley in the Alps and is breathtaking, despite it's seclusion, or maybe because of it. Linda and Philippe connect instantly, both being lonely souls orphaned at a young age. She is a surprisingly adept and forward-thinking companion for Philippe and saves him from a few dreadful accidents that might have happened if not for her. While she worries for Philippe's safety at the hands of his mysterious uncle and her boss, Léon de Valmy, Linda is in for a far greater predicament when she finds herself falling for Léon's rapscallion son, Raoul. Her love for Raoul blinds her to what is obviously going on in the Château and when she realizes the danger that she and Philippe are in it might just be too late... hurry, hurry, hurry — Ay, to the devil!

For many people, including myself, Mary Stewart is known for her Merlin series. Growing up in the 90s when I did surrounded by geeks who spent all their spare time discussing The Lord of the Rings in detail or playing Dungeons and Dragons or memorizing "Jabberwocky" in German, Mary Stewart was the female T.H. White. In fact, it wasn't until years later that I learned that Mary Stewart didn't only write about Arthurian Legend. To those in the "know" Mary Stewart was a writer of contemporary Gothic romances. I didn't learn about this other side of her till after high school when I started reading Austen and Bronte and developed a passion for historical fiction. Due to the enthusiastic following of these books by Stewart and in no small part to the reviews in the Bas Bleu catalog I started to pick up a book here and there over the years as the Chicago Review Press re-released them till I have now amassed a fairly comprehensive collection of Stewart's works. But alas, they have mainly just been sitting on my bookshelves looking pretty. Every so often I would look at the books and think, soon. I've been thinking this for awhile now and still they languished. The one interesting fact of waiting this long is not just the number of people who keep recommending Stewart's books to me over and over again, but that one book was recommended more then any other. That book was Nine Coaches Waiting. Seeing as this book's pushers usually dwell on Lauren Willig's "Weekly Reading Round-Up" I figured the confluence of events with "Jazzy July" meant the time was nigh. So Nine Coaches Waiting is waiting no more.

What I thought was very interesting about Stewart's writing is that she is able to take an idea that might be very gimmicky and spin it into something that works. At the beginning of the book Linda thinks of the quote from the play The Revenger's Tragedy about "Nine coaches waiting — hurry, hurry, hurry — Ay, to the devil!" Besides serving as the title of the book it serves as how the book is broken down into chapters. Each chapter is a different "coach" with nine coaches, or chapters, total. Though Stewart means this more literally then you might think. In each chapter Linda takes one vehicle somewhere, to Geneva or just down the road. But it's only a car that Linda has been in that counts. So the cars act as a literal drive for the book, because unless Linda gets in a car and is getting ready to get in another there won't be another chapter to start. This is one of those ideas that hangs around that cool/looking like a dickhead place on the fashion scale, only I'd quantify it as clever/lame gimmick on the storytelling scale. It's such a clever conceit that it could easily come across as smug that the author was "oh so clever" to have thought of it in the first place. But that's what I really like about Stewart, she never comes across as smug. She gets what she's doing but does it in a way that makes it fun and self-referential. Her ability to laugh at herself and give her readers a nod and a wink makes what would be conceited actually quite endearing.

This endearing quality continues into the Jane Eyre jokes. They are nicely playful without being self-satisfied and smug. As you're reading you're thinking, oh, how Jane Eyre, then Linda thinks it, and you're like spooky, but then her very Mr. Rochester boss, Léon de Valmy, says what both you and Linda are thinking and it's spooky but also amusing all at once. Like a nervous laugh that dispels the tension. Mary Stewart doesn't take herself or her narrative too seriously and you become complicit in the fun, and this, more then anything else, made the book for me. The Bronte allusions didn't hurt either. But there's one author you really can't help comparing Stewart to, and that's another fan of the Brontes. I'm talking about Daphne Du Maurier. Both are masters of the Gothic romance, but, well, Mary Stewart loses something of the Gothic sensibility in the modernity of her storytelling that Du Maurier was always able to hold onto. Nine Coaches Waiting is just not as Gothic as I expected it to be. Moreover, there are times when Stewart reaches beyond her ability as a writer and the results are painful. Stewart has problems with descriptions of her surroundings. Not only do her compass points shift and turn till you're not quite sure what the orientation of the valley and surrounding areas are, but her attempts at lyricism as to the beauty of her alpine surrounds is totally beyond her grasp. The descriptions fall flat and are just a pale imitation of Daphne Du Maurier, especially when you think of the verdant and lush growth that surrounds Manderley. Sometimes a writer needs a little reminder of what they do best and what will fall flat in the face of superior talent.

As for those Alpine surrounds, what is it about governesses and the alps that go together like a hand and a glove? While The Sound of Music wasn't a musical till a year after Nine Coaches Waiting, the Trapp family's story was well known thanks to their music, and the film The Trapp Family, as well as Maria's autobiography, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. So I'm sure that Stewart, in her comedic self-referential style, was fully aware of the connotations she was making in her readers minds. How could it be avoided with a governess in the alps!?! What mystifies me is the hold The Sound of Music has on so many people. So many authors, especially ones who like to write about governesses, site this movie as an important touchstone. I get the cultural impact, but the love? I seriously do not see it. The songs border on the annoying and once they're in your head they just never leave. Plus, despite how well Julie Andrews can hold a tune, I really didn't see the Captain falling for this upstart with a bad pageboy haircut. I understand the lure of the romance, but still. Perhaps it's that every time I think of The Sound of Music I'm back in 6th grade laying on the couch with the chicken pox watching the movie on Christmas Day. I don't think we knew it was chicken pox yet, but I do remember being wrapped up in a blanket on the couch, watching the whole movie, being tucked into bed, and promptly vomiting all over myself. Therefore it's best if I'm not reminded of this incident, in any way, shape, or form.

Speaking of vomit... yes, interesting segue that, but some of Linda's thoughts made me want to vomit. Let's look at her actions first, she is a competent governess, doesn't let on that she speaks French fluently and in fact speaks it badly on purpose, teaches and helps Philippe, saving his life several times by her forethought, including a late night flit into the wilderness. In other words, Linda kicks ass. Yet her inner monologue is just a little too self-hating. She thinks of herself as being a "silly woman" with her fears when what she does is seriously awesome. She is willing to give up true love and safety forever to protect one little child and she does it without a pang. Yet she'll go on about her thoughts being irrelevant or herself being worthless. I'm sorry, but firstly, no. No one is worthless. Secondly, she has proven time and time again that this is totally not the case. More importantly, this is just showing how much culture has always pushed women to undervalue themselves as second class citizens. Yes, I could argue that what Linda does versus what Linda thinks makes her a more interesting character because it shows how people have self doubts even while facing down tremendous odds, but I won't argue that. Mary Stewart is a female writer who knows better. Linda is strong and should be lauded, not second guessed by her own little grey cells.


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