Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

Oct 24, 2014

If you want me to read a book, just tell me it's a cross between Jane Eyre and Rebecca. Suspense? Mystery? Romance? Gothic ambiance? Sign me up. Please.

When Linda Martin arrives at the Château Valmy, she is greeted with austere, but kind, hospitality. She is to be the new governess to Philippe de Valmy, a nine-year-old boy who recently lost his parents in a tragic accident. He is the heir to the Château Valmy, but his Uncle Léon and Aunt Heloise have long been the caretakers of the estate. Soon after her arrival, strange things begin happening--a shot in the woods, a crumbling balustrade--and Linda is determined to protect her charge at any cost, all while wondering where the handsome Raoul fits in this dark plot. 

I mentioned this book on my reading list for October. At the time, I hadn't read it yet, so I didn't know for sure if it would be a good book for fall (and incidentally, I decided to save Greenglass House, also on the list, because after I picked it up, there just seemed to be too much of winter and the holidays in it to suit my reading mood). But now that I've finished it, let me tell you that if you like your fall reading flavored with suspense and danger (oh yeah, and elegant estates as well), then this book is perfect for the season (even though it's actually set in the spring).
I'd never read anything by Mary Stewart before (although one of Mike's cousins had recommended her to me on several different occasions), and now I'm wishing I didn't already have a half dozen other books checked out from the library waiting to be read because I would love to go out right this minute and pick up The Crystal Cave or The Moonspinners. I found her writing really engaging (my one complaint was that she tended to bump up against the superlative quite a bit, which made every event, even the more mild ones, feel intense).

One of my favorite descriptions was of Monsieur Florimond, a famous designer who the family knows well: "He wore his conventional, superbly cut clothes with all the delicate care one might accord to an old beach towel. His pockets bulged comfortably in every direction, and there was a cigar ash on his lapel. He was clutching what looked like a folio-society reprint in one large hand, and gestured with it lavishly to underscore some story he was telling Madame de Valmy." Florimond was probably my favorite of the secondary characters.

I thought about writing this whole review without alluding to important details to the plot, but I couldn't do it. So if you plan on reading this book, read no further! I repeat, stop. reading. now. Go to the library and get the book instead.
I've thought a lot about the genre of suspense since finishing this book and what makes a novel suspenseful. Obviously the situation and setting both contribute. Midway through the book, you know without a doubt there's a plot against Philippe for his life; just the idea that someone wants a little nine-year-old boy dead instantly ramps up the terror.

But it's more than that. In this particular book, once everything is finally revealed and settled out, the reader discovers (along with Linda) that for most of the day, Philippe wasn't in nearly as much immediate danger as Linda suspected. After I finished, I felt a teensy bit let down, and it took me a minute to realize it was because I felt a little annoyed about my pounding heart over nothing. (Okay, not nothing. The danger and evil were real, just not as lurking-around-every-corner as I was led to believe.)

But then (sorry to drag you along through my whole thought process), I thought, But Linda didn't know. She had to go with her gut instinct, and honestly, even though the level of danger all but disappeared by mid-morning, if she hadn't stolen away with Philippe in the middle of the night, real tragedy might have occurred. Because the story's being told from Linda's point of view, her fear becomes the reader's fear. I only had as much knowledge as she did, and I was scared right along with her. 

Speaking of fear, I loved this line: "I suppose a rabbit stays still while death stalks it just because it is hoping against hope that this is not death."

So I came to the conclusion that the actual risk means little in a suspense novel. It's all about how the characters perceive their own safety and security because if they feel threatened, then the reader will too (although, in this case, I definitely think there were a few blatant implications made to lead the reader astray).

Written in the 1950's, Nine Coaches Waiting also provides an interesting commentary on the times. Linda Martin herself is a strong female lead who risks her own security to provide safety for a little boy. She stands up for herself and doesn't hesitate to break the rules. At one point, after promising Berthe that she won't go to the police, she says, "I didn't let the promise Berthe had blackmailed from me weigh with me for a second; being a woman, I put common sense in front of an illusory 'honor,' and I'd have broken a thousand promises without a qualm if by doing so I could save Philippe."

But the other female characters are not so bold. Madame de Valmy is on the fringes of a complete mental collapse by the end of the book because she has been manipulated and used by her husband. And it appears that even Linda does not have the highest regard for the other members of her sex because when William Blake asks her who Berthe is, she says:"Oh, nobody. Just one of the nobodies who get hurt the most when wicked men start to carve life up to suit themselves."

Before I wrap this up, I just have to write a few words about Raoul de Valmy. I honestly wanted to like William Blake more than him. If it were me, I know I'd rather have kindhearted William than passionate Raoul. But try as I might, I couldn't actually make myself cheer for William. Raoul (tall, dark, and handsome) was so stereotypical, I begged myself to dislike him, but I couldn't. Against my better judgement, I was very happy with the way things ended up. Not practical, but very romantic.

While Nine Coaches Waiting didn't trump Jane Eyre or Rebecca, it was a delicious mix of suspense and romance, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.


  1. A cross between Jane Eyre and Rebecca? This is going on my to-read list immediately.

  2. Why have I never read anything by her??!!!

  3. I loved this too! I think I would have been ok with her ending up with William if she had added some last minute heft to him. But I was glad she kept you guessing until the end. I just read something in the same vein, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Exquisitely drawn characters, amazing descriptive setting and very suspenseful. Perfect October read.

    1. Ooooh, I'm putting that on my list for next year!


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