Monday, December 16, 2013

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

by Mary Stewart
Random House, 1991 (originally published in 1988)
188 pages

A book like this is, I think, much better read quickly, rather than in dribs and drabs as I did it. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy the experience; it's just that an enjoyable, pleasant read like this book shouldn't seem quite so slow as it did, and I never developed any sense of urgency about reading it. Nor did the plot develop any sense of urgency, but I think that was just that the reading was so interrupted. That said, it's sometimes very nice to read something that isn't urgent, but potters along at its own pace, and doesn't demand late-night readings.

Melwyk used the phrase "sweet witchiness" to describe Thornyhold, and I quite agree with that lovely choice of words. It is a quiet, simple, sweet story of a young woman, lonely and isolated in her childhood save for a few visits from her mother's kind, fiercely intelligent cousin, and isolated but rather glad of it in her young adulthood too. However, Cousin Geillis has left her goddaughter an unexpected and welcome gift: Thornyhold, a quiet cottage deep in the woods of an old estate, along with a cat, a few pigeons, lots of herbs and medicines, and a few near neighbours. Her closest neighbours are the Trapps, widow Agnes, her son Jessamy, and her mother (known only as Gran). And Agnes seems nice enough, but Gilly is not entirely sure she trusts her. Then there's the boy William, whom loved Geillis dearly and becomes quite attached to Gilly and she to him, and his father, an exceedingly attractive author, who lives in a cottage not far away.

You may see some of where this is going. Probably not all of it; there are little mysteries and twists, but this reader had not a lot of trouble figuring them out well before the protagonist did.

I think the thing I liked best about this book was the setting and the detail; Stewart did not spare when describing Thornyhold, nor indeed any of the settings in the book. In a longer book, the endless description might have felt tedious, but in the little book that Thornyhold is, the description laid the foundations for the story, establishing a certain mood and a certain type of character. Gilly tells the story firsthand; it is her attention to detail that we see. She loves the natural world and animals in particular, and so we pay attention to these things as well. I loved the setting, I loved how vivid it was in my head. I liked the level of detail. I liked that I felt that Gilly Ramsey was leading me around her world by the hand.

The characters, on the other hand, and the relationships in particular, tend to be barely sketched in. Gilly's character progression is pretty shy and retiring, like she is herself. It's hard to have a shy and retiring first-person narrator; she doesn't really want to let anyone in, including the reader. And the relationships, which for me are always the most interesting part of a book, seem... well, they kind of take a simple progression, but I'll admit I found the romance in particular almost too subtle. Stewart's light touch (or is it Gilly's?) is where I lost something by reading this book in such disjointed chunks. I think I would have appreciated the characters, and their interactions, much better if I'd been reading in a more concerted fashion.

I could see reading this again someday when I have more time to devote to it - it would go by in a single afternoon, if I had one. A quiet, simple love story with just a hint of magic and a lot of beautiful scenery.


GeraniumCat said...

I'm very fond of this book - I alternate re-reads of this and Elizabeth Goudge's The Scent of Water, which I think is rather similar and equally restful.

Unknown said...

I don't think I've ever read any Goudge (well, I know I haven't) so perhaps I'll start with that one. :)