July 25, 2021

Mary Stewart's Thunder on the Right

Mary Stewart's Thunder on the Right

Linda Hengerer and Suzanne Fox discuss Mary Stewart's Thunder on the Right, point of view, an unworldly protagonist, and why they don't enjoy this book as much as other novels she wrote.


In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book Thunder on the Right and how she uses omniscient point of view, how her protagonist differs from her usual protagonist, and why we think this might have been the first book Mary Stewart wrote.

It was first published in 1957 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions.  

Description from Amazon:

High in the rugged Pyrenees lies the Valley of the Storms, where a tiny convent clings to the beautiful but lonely mountainside. Jenny Silver arrives seeking her missing cousin, and is devastated when she learns of Gillian's death following a terrible car accident. But Jenny's suspicions are aroused when she’s told the blue flowers ornamenting her cousin’s grave were Gillian’s favourite. Jenny knows Gillian was colour-blind - and so starts her mission to uncover what really happened to her.
 
 The growl and roar of thunder rolled an re-echoed from the mountains and the sword of the lightning stabbed down, and stabbed again, as if searching through the depths of the cringing woods for whatever sheltered there.

 

Takeaways for writers:

In Thunder on the Right, Mary Stewart uses an omniscient point of view, a departure from her more common use of first-person point of view. Jenny Silver is younger than the protagonists in most of her novels, and also more sheltered. Think about how the relative age of a character skews their perspective when they’re leading the reader through a story. Written after World War II ended, think about how events, whether local or global, impact the characters and their actions.

 

Exercises for writers:

Point of View – In general, do you prefer reading first- or third-person point of view? Do you like an omniscient narrator? Do you have a preference when you’re writing? Write a scene from different points of view and see which you like better. Also note which way feels most natural to you and if it fits the genre you’re writing. How does using either point of view affect the reader – does first-person bring them into the story more than using third-person? How can you use either point of view to make the reader feel like they’re living the story? If you write in third-person, do you go into one character’s head or more than one? How does using more than one character’s point of view to tell the story enhance or muddle the story?

Characters – Think about your work in progress, and how the various ages of the characters play into the story. Can an older character be more naïve than a younger one? Why or why not? How do you show that?

Unusual Settings – A convent isn’t an intuitive setting for a mystery involving a missing woman. How does the convent play into the story? Are you writing a story that might benefit from an unusual setting? Whether your settings are unusual or not, how do you use Setting to enhance the story’s narrative? 

Historical Time – Thunder on the Right is set shortly after the events of World War II, and the aftermath of that conflict plays into the narrative. Whether you write historical fiction or not, how do you factor in the current events of the time you’re writing about? Do you ignore them, keeping your fictional world apart from actual events? 

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Transcript

Transcribed by Otter.ai; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive typos and grammar errors.

Episode 333 - Thunder on the Right

18:47

 Linda 00:00

Welcome to Tart Words. I'm your host, Linda Hengerer. And I'm a writer, a reader, and a baker. I talk to writers about their latest book and what inspires them; chat with fellow author Suzanne Fox about what writers can learn from reading their favorite authors; and share fast and easy recipes for anyone looking for a sweet treat. Join me as I share Tart Bites, Tart Thoughts, and Tart Words.  

Author, editor, book reviewer, and book consultant Suzanne Fox earned her MFA in Writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Her first book, the memoir Home Life, was published by Simon & Schuster; appearing under the pseudonyms Suzanne Scott and Suzanne Judson, her women’s fiction novels have been published by Berkley Penguin Putnam and Harlequin. Suzanne works personally with writers in many genres on book structure and publication, reviews literary and mystery fiction for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society Nineteen, and teaches workshops in memoir, fiction writing, and the creative process. Until recently a resident of Vero Beach, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina. More information about Suzanne can be found at www.sfoxarts.com.

In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book Thunder on the Right and how she uses omniscient point of view, how her protagonist differs from her usual protagonist, and why we think this might have been the first book Mary Stewart wrote.

It was first published in 1957 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions.  

Description from Amazon:

High in the rugged Pyrenees lies the Valley of the Storms, where a tiny convent clings to the beautiful but lonely mountainside. Jenny Silver arrives seeking her missing cousin, and is devastated when she learns of Gillian's death following a terrible car accident. But Jenny's suspicions are aroused when she’s told the blue flowers ornamenting her cousin’s grave were Gillian’s favourite. Jenny knows Gillian was colour-blind - and so starts her mission to uncover what really happened to her.
 
 The growl and roar of thunder rolled an re-echoed from the mountains and the sword of the lightning stabbed down, and stabbed again, as if searching through the depths of the cringing woods for whatever sheltered there.

Welcome to the podcast. Suzanne, we've talked about Thunder on the Right before, but I'm looking forward to talking about it with you again today.

Suzanne 02:30

Yes, it's definitely an interesting book, if not our favorite of Mary Stewart’s books.

Linda 02:36

Yes, disclosure to the listeners, neither Suzanne nor I really enjoy this book. And when I haven't read it for a while and reread it. I'm like, Oh, yes. Now I remember why I don't like it.

Suzanne 02:48

I had the same reaction. It was the only one of Stewart’s romantic suspense novels that I hadn't read for a long time. And I was thinking maybe I missed something. And then I thought, No. Nope, didn't like it, then don't like it now. Exactly. It's if nothing else, it's consistent.

Linda 03:05

Yes. And let's talk a little bit about why we don't enjoy it.

Suzanne 03:11

Yeah, I think that that's interesting. Obviously, a caveat to listeners is that is our personal taste. And it may be that other people enjoy it more than we do. But I do think that the things that make it one of the least popular of Stewart’s books also speak to writing techniques and decisions. I think we could talk a bit about it from that point of view as well, what doesn't quite work that works so well elsewhere in Stewart.

Linda 03:37

And we both don't like the same thing. So I don't know if that says more about us and the way we write or just in general as a writer being more critical about what we read, because certainly I don't know that I had as visceral a reaction when I first read it. But the first time I read it, I'm sure I enjoyed it because in general, I do like her books, but I can say that it is not one of my favorites in the way that Airs Above the Ground or The Moon-Spinners are, which is like coming home to an old friend and sinking into a comfortable chair.

Suzanne 04:13

Exactly. Interestingly, Thunder on the Right sounds more like some of the romantic suspense or Gothic romantic suspense that I was reading when I first read it, which as you say, although I'm older than you, was not when it first came out with what was probably when one of the American paperback editions came out in the next decade. And I think that it sounded fairly conventional and read this fairly conventional. So in addition to the fact that I didn't analyze writing in the same way, I think Phyllis Whitney or Victoria Holt are just the other people we might have been reading as adolescents, it fit within the context of those books. So particularly if you didn't yet know how good Stewart was elsewhere, it certainly didn't seem particularly unusual. And it's not a completely ineffective book.

Linda 05:07

I agree. And let's talk about what we don't like and why we don't like it. And I'll go first and say, I don't like her point of view character. She's young, she relies, I don't want to say she relies heavily on her boyfriend, because for a couple reasons, he's not really her boyfriend at the time. I think he's more of a familiar face at a time when she needs it. But she's just a little less worldly than her [Stewart’s] usual heroine, and just very naive. And I think for me, I like a stronger female protagonist.

Suzanne 05:43

I completely agree. And in thinking about the book, in preparation for our talk, one of the things that I realized, and we can talk about the fact that this is also the only character described from an omniscient point of view rather than telling her own story, but I do think that Jennifer, this female protagonist, she is very sheltered, she has been very reliant on and deferential to her parents decisions. And I realize that another issue for me is that she reads as the most privileged in a way of Stewart’s heroines, which is ironic, because there actually are some that technically have more money, or a more glamorous background. That's true in The Gabriel Hounds and Touch Not the Cat. So maybe the sense of privilege that pervades this character is simply that she really has no need to engage in the world. And that was a big difference. For me, as you say, other heroines are worldly, and they're worldly, partly in the sense of simply having jobs and having travelled, they've had more exposure to the world, and more need to problem solve on their own. And I think this character is the exception to that rule. And that was one of the things that I struggled with that she very much felt like someone who, until the events of this novel, which is very much a coming of age story for her, she has been able, she's not only been able, but she's been encouraged to rely so much on her parents and to remain so much in this very, very narrow, small world of the young woman of good English family, presumably awaiting marriage.

Linda 07:27

I agree with all that when you talk about the privilege of the characters in Touch Not the Cat and The Gabriel Hounds. One thing that struck me as you said, that is in those books, they are aware of their privilege, not that it was called that in the 50s or 60s when these books were written. But certainly now we can see that they are of a certain white, wealthy or at least moneyed, somewhat aristocratic background. And with Jennifer, she is so unworldly that she does not recognize that she is as privileged as she is, and doesn't really have the life experience to see that other people's experiences are not the same as hers.

Suzanne 08:11

I think that that's completely true. And it's interesting that in the two other books we just mentioned, are the female characters again, actually, their families have more money and more power in various worldly ways I think than Thunder on the Right. Both of those young women have had jobs. I believe her name is Briony, I apologize I could be wrong, in Touch Not the Cat. Nope, it's Briony. Okay, good. I must have had enough coffee this morning. She has been working in a hotel in Madeira of all places. So she's been abroad. Again, she's coped with life. And she's worked for a living. Christy Mansell, in The Gabriel Hounds the same thing, there really is no reason that she had to work except that she was a young woman who wanted to explore the world and test herself. I certainly admit to a bit of bias that I just tend in anything but you know, for example, a Victorian historical, to like characters that take jobs, I think that it's a way that just roughens the edges of these characters a little bit, you know, they have to just cope with things not going their way and doing things that you don't want to do and figuring out what it means to live in a real world where you earn your money.

Linda 09:28

They don't have an expectation as Jennifer seems to that things will always go their way. Like I think this is the first as you mentioned, this is the first kind of bump in her road.

Suzanne 09:40

Yes, absolutely. And a final note for me on this, which I just thought of, is one of the things that has changed dramatically since the period when Stewart was first publishing all of these books is the level and length of parental interference in young women's lives, right, that’s Jennifer’s situation in Thunder on the Right is not actually that unusual for the time, right? I think young women did not as characteristically go and get apartments of their own and explore life quite as adventurously, at least not in Jennifer's life situation and class. Interestingly enough, in the other books, even when the female protagonists are also very young, their parents generally are not in evidence. The exception is Wildfire at Midnight. But even there, they play a somewhat playful surreptitious role in a bit of stage management behind the scenes. But Gianetta Brook is a fully independent character. And I know for me, one of the things that just never sat well in Thunder on the Right, even when I was much younger, is how much parental expectation really defines this young woman's life. And maybe for me, that's one of the reasons that this book feels so much more dated than the others.

Linda 11:02

She has way less agency in determining her life than the other characters in Mary Stewart's books. And you mentioned Gianetta Brook in Wildfire at Midnight, who has been earning a living as a model and living on her own in London, she's got an adult life that's her own, as opposed to Jennifer in Thunder on the Right, who is still living at home, and definitely a part of her parents household with no apparent desire to go out on her own and create her own life, her own home, and determine her own life path. Whereas with many of the other characters, they are a little bit older. So that I think has something to do with it. But I think it's also the character's own desire to step out. And I know for myself, when I was growing up, I could not wait to have my first apartment, my first house, to be able to live on my own outside of the family unit that I grew up with, and not that I'm not close with my family because I am, but I just wanted the independence.

Suzanne 12:10

Right, right. And I think you and I, and certainly most women of our generation, and we are younger, a bit younger than I mean, we were born a bit later than some of Stewart’s heroines were, but we even were eager to take jobs despite the fact that our first jobs were often secretarial and or otherwise extremely limited. But as you say, I think it was a symbol of growing up. And there was a real excitement about growing up. I think we all had this real eagerness to confront life and to develop an independent identity. And as you say, that is just not something that happens with Thunder on the Right. And that may be emphasized by the narration as well.

Linda 12:52

Let's talk about that. This is I think her only book that is told in omniscient or not first person, I can say that I did not enjoy that.

Suzanne 13:03

I feel the same. And Stewart is such a skillful writer that that's surprising, I think for both of us who clearly love her work. But it may also be that the omniscient narration removes even more agency from Jennifer, right, you're seeing her in a funny way, she is presented just implicitly because of the way the narration works, as a creature that is analyzed by the omniscient narrator. And it's not that there's you know, many of my favorite novels use an omniscient narrator in this case, even though Stewart's narration is actually quite skillful. And some of the place descriptions are wonderful. And you know, the things she does well are there, but somehow for me, that also strips agency and life in a way from the character. And so instead of this, this somewhat feisty and interesting and curious first-person narration, you're getting almost a parent figure narrator explaining her life.

Linda 14:06

I think the viewpoint in this book flattens her character.

Suzanne 14:11

That's absolutely true. Interestingly, just as a, as a writer, one of the things that I noticed is also the omniscient narrator does not go into the inner world of the villains, so to speak, but the narrator does go into the inner world of the male protagonist. And I think that's interesting, because what you've mentioned this in, in previous episodes of our podcast discussions, that we as the reader are finding out we are discovering the world of the novel at the same time the female protagonist is doing so that adds to the suspense that adds to her identification with her that adds to the liveliness and I think having the narrator also be in Steven’s consciousness at times, or Stefan, I'm not sure either. Excellent. lining him, we lose a lot of the suspense because we are not in Jennifer's head as she begins to change her opinion of him her reactions to him. It's not that her surprise and Stewart narrates that changing point of view. But we already know this character, the male character, so well, that is not surprising.

Linda 15:23

That's a good point. And when you say it's not surprising, I think that's part of it. Because some like the device of mistaken identity, you sort of know what's coming. I don't know if that's because of the point of view, we're not in Jennifer's head. So we don't really see things through her eyes. And I think you're right that that does add to the suspense in other novels. Overall, I thought the story was sort of interesting, but I just didn't, I don't enjoy it the way I enjoy her other books. And as you said at the beginning, that's got nothing to do with Mary Stewart’s skill as a writer, I don't even want to say it's, you know, because of my preference that I like first-person versus omniscient, because that's not the case, either. But I think it's also natural that when someone has written as many books as Mary Stewart that you're going to resonate with some more than others. And in this case, Thunder on the Right just does not hit the buttons that I like to have as a reader.

Suzanne 16:23

I agree. Just briefly going to something that we've talked about that even though this was not the first of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels that was published it was the third, it feels possibly like one that she had written and completed, but she had decided not to sell that one, to not try to get that one published. And that possibly as she became successful, the publisher said, Oh, yes. Here's famously the early novel in your sock drawer, which you see in the careers of John Grisham and others. Once someone gets successful, everything that they have is grist for the mill. It feels less mature than the others, not just in terms of this much younger feeling character, but also that Stewart had not found the perfect formula for her voice. You do see that formula in Madam, Will You Talk?, the first book to be published, certainly in Wildfire at Midnight, which is brilliant, the second [book of Mary Stewart’s published]. We are completely surmising here, but it has the feeling of something that either if she did, in fact write it third, or somewhere later in the series [of books, not to be confused with a book series] that she…it was an experiment, but it does have the air of something where an author has found many components actually have their most successful work, and yet, they still have to tweak the recipe.

Linda 17:42

And I think that's a good point. And I think on that note, we'll leave our discussion of Thunder on the Right at that point, and look forward to talking about another book, which we do enjoy, which is The Ivy Tree. Thank you for coming on the podcast today, Suzanne, I really enjoyed talking with you about Thunder on the Right

Suzanne

Thank you. Always a pleasure. 

Linda

Thank you for joining me this week. To view the complete show notes and the links mentioned in today's episode, visit Tart Words.com/tart333. Before you go, subscribe to the podcast to receive new episodes when they're released. Subscribe now in the app you're using to listen to this podcast or sign up for email alerts through an easy signup form for bakers, readers and writers at Tart Words.com/About. Thank you again for joining me, Linda Hengerer, for this episode of Tart Thoughts.

Suzanne Fox

Guest

Author, editor, book reviewer, and book consultant Suzanne Fox earned her MFA in Writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Her first book, the memoir Home Life, was published by Simon & Schuster; appearing under the pseudonyms Suzanne Scott and Suzanne Judson, her women’s fiction novels have been published by Berkley Penguin Putnam and Harlequin. Suzanne works personally with writers in many genres on book structure and publication, reviews literary and mystery fiction for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society Nineteen, and teaches workshops in memoir, fiction writing, and the creative process. Until recently a resident of Vero Beach, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina. More information about Suzanne can be found at www.sfoxarts.com.