by Mary Stewart
I listened to this on audio, read by Ellie Haydon, who makes Christy and Charles, the two leads, posh but likable. Strangely, Christy’s Lebanese driver, Habib, is read as an English cockney. Christabel Mansel is on a guided bus tour of the Mideast. She semi-coincidentally meets her older cousin Charles. “I met him on a street called Straight” is the attention-grabbing first sentence in the book. They were raised together in England and are first cousins, both the children of twin brothers. I’ll let that sink in though I have no comment. My understanding is that in later, possibly in the U.S. editions, the editors changed this to second cousins. Because by the end of the novel, they are well on the way to marriage and presumably children. Christy is the first to admit that both she and Charles are spoiled and entitled, but it doesn’t really come through in their words and actions. They are likable and nice. Christy in particular has a lot of gumption and is not afraid of confronting the bad guys later in the book with her tart sarcastic tongue.
Charles reminds Christy that their eccentric Great Aunt Harriet lives near Damascus in a Castle called Der Ibrahim. She fancies herself as a latter-day Lady Hester Stanhope. Christy doesn’t really remember her too well, but Charles was always a favorite and he plans to go visit her. Meanwhile, Charles has to go meet someone on business, and Christy decides to steal a march on him. Because that is how she rolls. She is successful in getting into the decaying castle and meeting her elderly sick Aunt’s caretakers, who seem OK at first but may or may not be shady, and finally her reclusive and anti-social Aunt, who is really odd and creepy. Before she leaves two days later she notices that the local girl servant is wearing her great aunt’s ruby ring, a family heirloom. Something is not right.
When Christy and Charles meet up again Christy tells him the whole story. The easy and sometimes amusing banter between the two cousins is a strong point in the book. On her way to meet Charles in Beirut (or Damascus?), she is kidnapped and taken back to Aunt Harriet’s castle by a man who looks strangely familiar. From there, Christy and the Reader are confronted with being drugged, smuggling, poison, dungeons, murder, a raging fire, and the truth about Aunt Harriet.
Most of the book is, fair to say, heavy on the description and travelogue aspects and light on the plot. As exotic, romantic, and nostalgic as the 1960s Middle East is, it does slow the book up a bit. The last quarter of the book is full of action and excitement and of course, Romance. It even has a heart-touching scene. Christy and Charles make a great team and have a great relationship. Reading about the 1960s in the 2020s is nostalgia gone wild. With a touch of melancholy. Not that I ever was in Syria or Lebanon, of course. But Mary Stewart is so great at conjuring up that world and the sights and experiences that a beautiful, rich, spirited, and smart girl might have had there, (even without all the excitement) it reminds me of why I love to read. Calgon, Take me Away.