When I was fourteen years old my older sister got a huge box of Harlequin paperbacks from a garage sale and that was my first experience of romance novels. The women were always gasping or feeling faint and the men were tall, rugged, and frequently spoke a second language in husky tones. Most often the two main characters had a huge misunderstanding that took the whole novel to resolve. No personal growth occurred besides learning that love comes in a crushing embrace and perhaps making sure that your steady man doesn't have a darkly handsome half brother waiting moodily in the wings before you agree to marry him.
Then I read a Mary Stewart novel. My mother and even my father was a fan of her work and so I had most of her novels at my fingertips. I devoured them. In her novels the story always comes first. The men were intelligent, and flawed, and interesting. Her heroines were miles ahead of the lost, type-cast waifs of the Harlequin Romance novels; they were smart, poised, and refreshingly normal. They were adventurous, had ethics and were everything I wanted to be as a woman instead of everything I wanted to be to a man. Mary Stewart novels took the place of the paperbacks I used to hide between the towels in the downstairs bathroom, and I still read them today, tho now they sit proudly on my book shelf.
"Madam, Will You Talk?", one of my favorites, is a novel about a young woman named Charity Selbourne who is taking a vacation with her friend and colleague, Louise, in France. She becomes embroiled in a mystery when she befriends a lonely little boy in a hotel in Avignon and the rest of the novel races and winds it's treacherous way from there. It has murder, chases, humour, and a clever plot, and is the best thing for you when you are on a bus, in a line, or waiting for your name to be called.
All Mary Stewart novels are written in first person from the point of the heroine. Here is an excerpt from "Madam, Will You Talk?" :
"I suppose I should have been more careful; I suppose I should have heard the way his voice altered then. But I was still embarrassed, wanting to get away, chattering aimlessly about nothing.
He said, very quietly: 'David?
'Yes. David Shelley. That's who I was thinking of when I said I should have been called Wordsworth. All the Romantic poets seem to be in---'
'Where did you meet this David Shelley?'
I heard it then. I stopped with my cigarette half-way to my lips and looked at him. His hand was quite steady as he flicked the ash from his cigarette, and his face showed no expression. But there was a look behind his eyes that made my heart jolt once, sickeningly.
He said again, softly, almost indifferently: 'Where did you meet this David Shelley?'
And looked at me with David's eyes.
Shelley---Coleridge---Byron. I knew now. I was alone in that quiet little temple with Richard Byron, who had been acquitted of murder on the grounds of insufficient evidence, and who was looking at me now as if he would like to choke me.
He threw away his cigarette and took a step towards me."