Can you remember the last time you were so engrossed in a book that the rest of the world receded? Â Can you remember that delicious feeling of being utterly in the thrall of a gripping plot, turning pages rapidly, staying up far later than you should and letting dishes and laundry pile up because all you wanted to do was find out how the story ends?
It’s a great feeling. Â It’s one of the highlights of life, as I see it. Â And something about summer, with its longer days and more leisurely schedule, makes it the perfect time to acknowledge and celebrate the writers that have, at two different points of my life, provided such beloved reading experiences.
Let’s start with Carolyn Keene, who wasn’t a real person, but who is the name on the yellow spines of all the Nancy Drew novels I loved as a kid.
It’s probably time to re-read a few of these and see if I can recapture the delicious feeling they gave me as a fourth-grader. Â I was forever checking these books out of the school library, and Nancy’s adventures — her travels to various places around the country (and globe), her brushes with serious bodily injury, her fun times with loyal friends Bess and George, her narrow misses — captivated me. Â There was a comfort in knowing that Nancy would always solve the mystery, even though my ten-year-old mind was skeptical enough to know that such a track record was pretty unrealistic. Â (My friends and I onceÂ did the math, and realized that since Nancy was eighteen throughout fifty-plus books, it meant she solved more than one mystery a week.)
But in the end, I didn’t read them for the realism. Â I read them for the sheer excitement of following the clues, unraveling a mystery, and biting my nails as the action reachedÂ its climax. Â I loved them, pure and simple.
Today, my hunger for this kind of reading is sated by the suspense novels of Mary Stewart, who died last month at age 97Â (briefÂ overview of her work here.) Â The first novel of hers I read was The Ivy Tree, which blew me away, and I’ve since read all her “romantic suspense” titles. (I hate that label. Â ItÂ sounds so cheesy, when her books areÂ anything but).
Mary Stewart knew how to spin a plot. Â She pulls you along on all sorts of twists and turns, and boy, does she keep you guessing. Â I’d comment on a few of her most memorable tricks, but it’s better toÂ refrain because even to hint at them may spoil the reading experiences for those of you lucky ducks who have yet to pick up her books. Â Trust me: she’s good.
She’s also a master (mistress?) at evoking a mood. Â Whether she’s writing a novel set in an old farmhouse in the English countryside, a chateau in France, the ancient ruins ofÂ Greece or a beach in Corfu, you feel a part of the setting, in all its particular uniqueness. Â Â And her heroines are admirable women in their own right; not quite as perfect as Nancy Drew (really, who is?), but smart and adventurous and utterly likable. Â Stewart was also a formidable scholar, and her books often feature snippets of great literature and Shakespeare and the classics as teasers for each chapter.
It was a sad, sad day when I read my last Mary Stewart suspense novel. Â I do re-read them from time to time, but it’s never quite the same as that first initial thrill. Â Is it wrong to wish for selective amnesia, so I can have the pleasure of rediscovering them? Â I wonder.
But when I think about Ms. Stewart’s recent passing, there is one thing I know for certain. Â A life spent writingÂ Â books that bring suchÂ pleasure to others is aÂ very well-lived life indeed.
So what are the books that keep you avidly turning pages? Â I’m always looking for recommendations. Â I’d love to hear about the “unputdownables” you readÂ as a kid, too.