The Ivy Tree
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The Ivy Tree is a novel of romantic suspense by English author Mary Stewart. Her sixth novel, it was published in 1961 in Britain by Hodder & Stoughton and in 1962 in the United States by William Morrow. As usual with the author, the novel is narrated in first person by a bold and intelligent young woman, and the setting is picturesque - in this case, Northumberland.
Mary Grey is off work on Sunday afternoon and enjoying the beauty of the northern English countryside. As she leans against Hadrian's Wall near a cliff overlooking the waters of Crag Lough, her relaxed hour becomes terrifying when a man aggressively advances on her. Connor Winslow calls her "Annabel" and demands to know why Annabel has returned. He is both angry and menacing ("looking just about as friendly and as safe as a black mamba"), asks if she thinks that she can take the house and farm away from him, and makes a veiled threat to throw her over the cliff. Adding to her fear, the collie at his heels looks dangerous.
When Mary finally succeeds in making Connor believe that she is Mary Grey from Canada, he is amazed at her resemblance to Annabel. Connor begs her to listen to his story, and, narrating, she admits, "as my fright had subsided, my curiosity had taken over". He offers Mary an opportunity to earn much-needed money by persuading her to impersonate Annabel, who disappeared eight years earlier from the Northumberland family farm, Whitescar.
Annabel's grandfather, Matthew, is very ill but delaying the announcement to whom he will bequeath Whitescar and his financial estate. Even after eight years, during which most people assumed that Annabel was dead, Matthew continues to hope that his favorite Annabel will return home. His nephew, Connor, is determined to inherit Whitescar; his half-sister, Lisa, is determined to do whatever Connor wants; and they certainly do not want Whitescar left to the pretty young cousin, Julie Winslow. If Mary will return as Annabel, and if Matthew then leaves the farm to her, Mary is to give it to Connor, in return for payment.
For reasons only partially explained (to Connor and Lisa, as well as to the reader) she agrees, becomes Annabel, and goes to Whitescar where she succeeds in convincing the household - Grandfather Matthew, Connor's sister Lisa, cousin Julie, and Mr. and Mrs. Bates (employees of Whitescar) - that she is indeed Annabel.
Mary's one weakness is horses, however. Annabel was a horse whisperer, while Mary expresses fear of them and balks at riding one. Nevertheless, Mary offers a believable excuse for the fear and continues on with her deception. Then she discovers a secret even Connor did not know: Annabel was having an affair with a married neighbor, Adam Forrest, owner of nearby Forrest Hall. During their relationship, Annabel and Adam exchanged letters and notes by leaving them in the trunk of the ivy tree on Forrest property. When Adam discovers the long-lost Annabel after her late-night visit to the ivy tree, he admits his undying love to her. It's up to Annabel to make him realize their romance is over. In doing so, Adam understands her to be acting as an imposter. Mary persuades him to keep her identity secret as long as no one is hurt, and he agrees.
The foreshadowed plot twist is satisfying: Mary really is Annabel, and has been determined not to let the violence-prone Connor harm Grandfather or Julie in any way. At the climax, Annabel tries to save Adam from dying in a cave-in of an old cellar. Her heroic efforts lead to a final confrontation with Connor, who at last realizes the truth about the cousin who outwitted the would-be outwitter.
As the tale winds up, Annabel and Julie are confirmed best friends, Julie will marry her boyfriend, and Annabel and Adam are finally free to love each other in public.
Mary Grey, a beautiful, slender, 27-year-old woman and a new arrival in England from Canada, working in the Kasbah cafe in Newcastle and renting an old run-down flat. Some of her ancestors came from Northumberland County and she is hoping for a new beginning in life when she meets Connor Winslow.
Connor Winslow, the handsome but hot-tempered and ruthless manager of Whitescar Farm and nephew of Matthew Winslow, proud of his Irish heritage. As attractive as he is on the outside, inside he is self-centered and ruthless with a murderer's heart.
Lisa Dermott, Connor's half-sister, is loyal only to her brother. At times, she is completely unlikeable because of her lack of independence or desire to create her own identity. Lisa seems totally satisfied serving Connor and the Winslow household in the hopes that her brother will gain full control and ownership of it.
Matthew Winslow, the elderly, domineering patriarch of Whitescar, is the grandfather of Annabel and Julie and uncle to Connor. Although a stroke has weakened him and death is imminent, Matthew continues to control his household and enjoys keeping everyone in suspense regarding his final wishes to his heirs. Everyone knows Annabel is his favorite.
Julie Winslow is the pretty, vivacious young cousin of Annabel. Julie adores Annabel and freely confides about her feelings concerning Whitescar, her boyfriend Donald, and her knowledge of the affair between Annabel and Adam. When Connor threatens Julie, it is Annabel and Adam who rescue her.
Archaeologist Donald Seton, Julie's boyfriend, is captivated with his work on Roman excavations, and his lack of attention towards Julie upsets her, causing her to doubt if she and Donald will ever marry. Despite their opposite personalities and his job, Donald adores Julie. When he almost dies in a cave-in on Forrest Hall property, it draws them closer together.
After Annabel disappeared eight years earlier, Adam Forrest moved to Italy after his home, Forrest Hall, caught fire and burned. He managed to rescue his wife from the flames, but in doing so, his hands were badly burned and disfigured. During his absence from Forrest Hall, Adam's wife died. Shortly after returning home, he discovers Annabel. At the first sight of his disfigured hands, Mary is startled to tears—a reaction not lost on Adam.
Mary Stewart was already a popular author of romantic suspense and most reviewers felt that this novel was up to her standards. The Atlantic Monthly said, "The author has a neat touch with red herrings and cambric-tea romances." The Christian Science Monitor said: "If the reader feels cheated by the denouement, the author has earned forgiveness by her exciting, belief-suspending account of Mary Grey's sensitive groping for the right response to those who are more sure than the reader that they have known her all her life." The eminent mystery-novel critic Anthony Boucher said, "No one writes the damsel in distress tale with greater charm or urgency."
- Stewart, Mary. The Ivy Tree. William Morrow, 1962, p. 10.
- Stewart, Mary. The Ivy Tree. William Morrow, 1962, p. 13.
- Adams, Phoebe. The Atlantic Monthly, April 1962.
- The Christian Science Monitor, January 11, 1962.
- Boucher, Anthony. The New York Times Book Review, January 7, 1962.
- Stewart, Mary. The Ivy Tree. William Morrow, 1962.