Genres: Romantic suspense
Source: my personal collection
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Also by this author: This Rough Magic, The Gabriel Hounds, Nine Coaches Waiting
Well before there was Nora Roberts or Jayne Ann Krentz, there was Mary Stewart, whose romantic suspense novels thrilled an earlier generation of women readers. Slower-paced than today’s frenetic thrillers, Stewart’s books offer readers a subtler, more leisurely and perhaps more nuanced experience.
Stewart may be best known today for her blockbuster Arthurian saga (The Crystal Caves, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day), but it was her romantic suspense novels which first gained her recognition. Some of them have held up surprising well over the years, despite the inevitable dating that any contemporary novel experiences as time moves on and it is set no longer in the present but in the past. Of these, Airs Above the Ground is one of my favorites.
Veterinarian Vanessa March is about to refuse when her mother’s friend asks her to accompany her 17-year-old son Timothy to Vienna to visit his father… until Carmel mentions seeing Vanessa’s husband, Lewis, in newsreel footage of a circus fire in Austria. Since Vanessa thinks Lewis to be in Stockholm on business, she is first disbelieving, then angry and suspicious when she confirms that the man in the newsreel is indeed her husband – and he’s got his arm around a young woman.
When it turns out that Timothy is actually making a break for freedom, and hadn’t been invited by his father at all, Vanessa and Tim join forces to find the circus – and Lewis. Gaining entrée to the circus proves easy when Tim befriends the owner’s daughter, Analiese, and Vanessa offers her veterinary services to assist an old horse injured on the night of the fire. But many things are not what they seem, for the man Vanessa believed to be Lewis turns out instead to be a Mr. Lee Elliot, and the fire in which two men died might have been deliberately set.
There’s so much I love about this book, from the skill and subtlety with which Stewart builds the suspense to the wonderful characters to the charming and evocative setting in the Austrian Alps. I like Vanessa, who narrates the book; she’s intelligent and strong in her way, but not a superwoman. She’s honest about her feelings, and willing to admit to fear. Tim is absolutely charming – I first read the book when I was in high school, and at the time I wished I knew a real boy like him. The relationship between Vanessa and Tim is one of friendship and partnership, not romance, but it’s a partnership of equals despite his relative youth. Their banter is often humorous, especially around the subject of Tim’s constant appetite.
I love, too, that horses play such an important role in the book. Tim is horse-mad, and hopes to find a job at the Spanische Reitschule, the Spanish Riding School in Vienna long famous for its Lipizzaner horses. Analiese trains and rides a Lipizanner in the circus, and they also have a team of liberty horses. And Vanessa’s patient, an old piebald whose master died in the fire, turns out to be the most important of them all.
There are some wonderful suspenseful sequences, including a deadly serious hide-and-seek with a villain among the turrets and basements of an old castle. Stewart’s descriptive writing is masterful; you can see the hillsides and villages, smell the pines, and almost taste the gugelhupf. The only somewhat jarring note is that, as I mentioned above, the book is a little dated; this is most evident in the relationship between Vanessa and Lewis, which demonstrates mid-twentieth-century mores and expectations regarding gender roles. Some modern readers may find this slightly annoying or distasteful. But if you can look beyond that, remembering that Stewart was writing for a 1960s audience, Airs Above the Ground delivers a satisfying and ultimately heartwarming experience.
Recommended if you like: romantic suspense, Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, Ellis Peters’ contemporary mysteries
A note on the covers: The current mass market cover <i>(right)</i>, while pretty, doesn’t match the story, which neither takes place in winter nor involves wild horses. The cover of the older hardcover edition <i>(above)</i> illustrates a pivotal scene in the novel, and shows a horse performing one of the Schulen über der Erde or “airs above the ground” (dressage movements involving leaps or rearing positions.) Specifically, he’s performing the levade. To read more about the airs above the ground, with pictures of the various leaps and poses, go to Wikipedia’s “Airs above the ground”.