Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart

Stormy Petrel It’s hard to believe it’s only been two years since I discovered Mary Stewart! I read the brilliant Nine Coaches Waiting in November 2011 and since then I’ve read seven of her other books and loved most of them. When I first started to think about what I wanted to read for Anbolyn’s Mary Stewart Reading Week, Stormy Petrel wasn’t a title that came to mind, but I decided to see what the library could offer and this was the only one they had that I hadn’t already read. Knowing that this was one of her later books (published in 1991) and not considered to be one of her best, I was careful not to go into it with my expectations too high.

Stormy Petrel is narrated by Rose Fenemore, a poet and writer of science fiction novels. Due to her busy schedule as a tutor of English at Cambridge, Rose doesn’t have as much time to write as she would like, so she decides to take a break and spend two weeks at a cottage on the Hebridean island of Moila. Her brother Crispin, a doctor, agrees to meet her there as he is a keen wildlife photographer and is looking forward to taking pictures of the rare birds that nest on the island.

Rose arrives several days before Crispin and begins to settle into the cottage, but on her first night the island is hit by a storm and she wakes up to find a strange man in the kitchen. His name is Ewen Mackay and he tells her that his foster parents used to live in the cottage and he has come to visit them unaware that they had moved away. As Rose listens to Ewen’s story, another man arrives at the door. Introducing himself as John Parsons, he explains that he was camping and his tent has blown away in the wind so he is looking for somewhere to shelter from the storm. Rose lets them both stay until morning but over the next few days she learns more about both men and discovers that neither of them has been completely honest with her. How can she decide who to trust?

This was not one of my favourite Mary Stewart books and slightly disappointing compared with some of her earlier ones, but I still liked it and rate it above Rose Cottage, which was her final book, published several years after this one (I didn’t dislike Rose Cottage either, but it was a bit too gentle for me). The problem with Stormy Petrel is that as a ‘romantic suspense’ novel the romance is only hinted at and there’s not much suspense either. After one or two surprises near the beginning of the book the rest of the story is predictable, the villain is not really all that villainous and I never felt that Rose was in any danger.

Something I did love about this book was the wonderful Scottish setting. Every time I read a Mary Stewart novel I find myself enthusing over her beautiful descriptions of the area in which the story is set, and Stormy Petrel is no exception:

The Isle of Moila is the first stop past Tobermory. It is not a large island, perhaps nine miles by five, with formidable cliffs to the north-west that face the weather like the prow of a ship. From the steep sheep-bitten turf at the head of these cliffs the land slopes gently down towards a glen where the island’s only sizeable river runs seawards out of a loch cupped in a shallow basin among low hills. Presumably the loch – lochan, rather, for it is not large – is fed by springs eternally replenished by the rain, for nothing flows into it except small burns seeping through rush and bog myrtle, which spread after storms into sodden quagmires of moss. But the outflow is perennially full, white water pouring down to where the moor cleaves open and lets it fall to the sea.

Moila doesn’t really exist but the descriptions are so vivid I’m sure it must be based on a real Hebridean island. Stewart’s love for the landscape and the wildlife are obvious and throughout the story she explores the importance of preserving the beauty of nature. If you don’t already know what the title ‘stormy petrel’ refers to, she explains that too.

At just over 200 pages, this is a quick read and perfect for those times when you just want to relax with a book that’s not too complex or demanding!

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18 thoughts on “Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart”

  1. I’ve tried to read this a few times and haven’t been able to get into it. It didn’t grip me right away like most of her others have, but it does have those beautiful descriptions of the landscape. I’ll finish it someday. Thanks for reading along this week – I credit you and Jane with introducing me to Mary Stewart!

  2. I have this one in the TBR stacks, but I don’t think I’ll get to it this week. I’ll keep it in mind, though, for when I need a comfortable or distracting read.

  3. Rather ashamed to say I don’t think I’ve ever read *any* Mary Stewart at all – not a conscious decision, just that other books got in the way. (Presumably this is the same Mary Stewart who wrote the Merlin novels?) However, as you think so highly of her, she’s clearly an author worth seeking out. I feel a library trip coming on… Her descriptive prose certainly sounds beautiful. Helen, any recommendations as to which I should start with?

    1. Yes, she’s the author of the Merlin novels, though I haven’t read any of those yet as I’ve been concentrating on reading her suspense novels first. I’ve enjoyed most of the six or seven I’ve read so far, though I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one or Rose Cottage. My favourite is Nine Coaches Waiting, which reminded me of Daphne du Maurier, but I also loved The Gabriel Hounds (set in Lebanon) and This Rough Magic and The Moonspinners, both adventure novels set on Greek islands.

  4. This was one I haven’t read that I was tossing up getting hold of, but in the end I settled on Thornyhold for my second read of the week, and am enjoying it so far – it is fairly quiet, but there are some marvellous landscape set-pieces in it that offer some familiar territory. Also a gently developing sense of unease, which it drawing me in. I like your point that one talks about levels of liking with Mary S books, rather than disliking. That said, I think The Ivy Tree is my current favourite.

    1. I haven’t actually disliked any of her books, but there are definitely some that I’ve liked a lot more than others! I’m glad you’re enjoying Thornyhold – I haven’t read that one yet.

  5. I chose this as my read for the week not having read Stewart before, and I really like that even though this isn’t a great book you can tell how good Stewart could be. Rather than simply an average read that’s forgettable, it makes you want to seek more of her work, and that’s something I really appreciated.

    I had a vague idea about the romantic suspense and you’re right, this isn’t much of one. Though the setting and the descriptions of the setting, absolutely gorgeous!

    1. It probably wasn’t the best one for you to have started with, but it’s good that you could still appreciate Stewart’s writing. I’m glad you liked it enough to want to look for more of her work!

  6. I was very interested to hear this was published in 1991 because I had been wondering about Mary Stewart’s later novels. Even more interesting, it turns out I already read her last- Rose Cottage. That was the second novel of hers I read, and I actually liked it better than the first (The Ivy Tree), but you’re right, it is a very gentle book and the elements of danger in it don’t feel very dangerous at all.

    1. If you liked Rose Cottage I think you’ll probably like this book too as they have quite a similar feel. I prefer the ones with a bit more suspense and adventure, but really I haven’t disliked any of the Mary Stewart books I’ve read so far.

  7. Thank you Helen, for it was you who got me into reading Mary Stewart. I would like to try Nine Coaches Waiting before this one I think. I hope to get to them all, but not sure about her Merlin novels.

  8. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this one more than Rose Cottage. I loved the beautiful descriptions of the Isle of Skye in Wildfire at Midnight so I would probably love the description in this book too. I really can’t wait to read more of Stewart’s books but will take your advice and may be focus on her earlier books.

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