I was surprised to see that “The Stormy Petrel” was not as well received as some of Mary Stewart’s other novels. I thoroughly enjoyed this and it was a fast read!
The heroine of the novel, Rose Fenemore, is looking for ‘an ivory tower’. An English professor/author, Rose finds the perfect set-up for a vacation in the Scottish isles. Her brother Crispin will join her as he is a doctor and a naturalist/photographer on the side. However, events conspire to delay Crispin’s arrival, and in the timed-honored style of Mary Stewart, Rose has an adventure in the meantime.
“The walls of the cottage were thick enough to shut out the worst sounds of the storm’s buffeting, and even the creaking of doors and rattling of windows could not keep me awake for long. But something, some sharper, unaccustomed sound, brought me out of my first deep sleep into listening wakefulness.”
This novel is what I would call a quick -and- easy read. Unlike several of her other novels, this one is not chock-full of twists and turns or thrilling adventure or mystery. The closest you get to ‘mystery’ is trying to discern whether or not Ewen Mackay is who he says he is… is he a harmless handsome guy, or is he really, underneath, an escaped convict who likes to rob helpless little old ladies? What is he doing on the island? Did he return, as he confesses to Rose, because of sentiment to his childhood home…or are there more sinister reasons?
Mary Stewart’s heroines are usually capable, self-sufficient, and able to cope well with each novel’s plot (although, at times, they are also ‘realistically human’. I am thinking of Nicole in “The Moonspinners” and her obvious anguish over Colin, a fifteen-year-old boy’s, fate.. and the resulting indecision she has. Does she simply, as instructed, ‘walk away’, or should she look for Colin, even if it means danger to herself?)
In “The Stormy Petrel”, Rose has to decide what to do when two strangers land on her doorstep on a ‘dark and stormy night.’ (as an aside: I do not think in today’s world, I would consider it ‘safe’ to make the same decision(s) she did!)
I enjoyed reading Mary Stewart’s (probably first-hand) description of Rose experiencing “writer’s block”:
“I got back to work, by which I mean that I got my papers and notes out, and then sat looking at them for what seemed like a dreary lifetime, and was really only twenty minutes. The words I had written – and had almost, in the interval, forgotten – mocked me and were meaningless. My notes told me what was to happen next, but my brain no longer knew how to move plot and people forward. Block. Complete block.”.
Even in this ‘easy read’, there were vocabulary terms I was unfamiliar with and had to look up…. for instance, what is a machair? how about, a broch?
“There was the long, gentle curve of milk-white sand, backed by a sea of turquose and pale jade and indigo. There were the far cliffs, violet-shadowed as any classical landscape. And for the four miles of the flat coastline, between the white beach and the green slope of the moor, stretched the wild-flower meadow that in Gaelic is the machair”. (oh! THAT’s what a ‘machair’ is!) : )
The romance in “Stormy Petrel” is also more low-key… but present, nonetheless. The author does make a case for wildlife (in this instance, for ‘stormy petrels’ who are actual birds that nest on an island), and the point-of-view developed later on in the story, that seems to be anti-expansion/vacation-resort. (When this book was published, in 1991, it is possible that very few islands were being left undeveloped…I would have to do my research to find out).
I’ve been doing lots of Christie/mystery novels and was ready to read a book that has enjoyable characters and lovely descriptions of an island off the coast of Scotland. The dialogue is always tops, and the descriptions of the wildlife and scenery once again are well-crafted.
Read it for yourself and see if you think it measures up to Stewart’s more fast-paced novels like “Madam Will You Talk” or “Nine Coaches Waiting”. For me, “The Stormy Petrel” came at just the right time : )