Many of you will already know that it’s the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s 60th anniversary this year – a year when the celebrations have necessarily been a little more muted than planned for the most obvious of reasons. But perhaps this has also been a year when readers have appreciated romantic fiction more than ever before – since the beginning of the March lockdown I know I’ve read little else, feeling a particular need for the kind of comfort and escape that only the best of romance can offer.
I was really delighted when Alison May, the RNA Chair, suggested I might like to run a series of articles where RNA authors look back at their favourite romance reads through the decades. That series starts today, with the wonderful Sheila O’Flanagan selecting her favourite book from the 60s: I’ll be hosting a different author every day this week, finishing on Saturday.
You might also have noticed the RNA’s series of daily tweets, inviting everyone to vote for their favourite books from each decade in turn. I chose my favourite from the 60s on Saturday, and as there was nothing on the list by Victoria Holt/Jean Plaidy (I devoured her every book in the 60s…!) my vote went to Valley of the Dolls (as I was born in 1955, I think it was one I must have read in secret, under the covers with my torch). The winner, I see, was Georgette Heyer’s Frederica (which I’ll admit I’ve never read – apologies everyone!) – and on Friday (20th) you’ll have the opportunity to vote for the “winner of winners”.
But I was certainly a really big fan of the books of Mary Stewart – let me hand over to Sheila to tell you more…
I was about twelve years old when picked up my aunt’s well-read copy of The Moon Spinners which she’d left on the kitchen table while staying with us. Two hours later, she was ready to go home but I begged her to leave the book with me. I had been transported to Crete, lost in the story of Nicola Ferris, who’s meeting her cousin there for a holiday but who has arrived ahead of her and has some time on her hands.
Mary Stewart writes such vivid descriptions that, on a rainy day in Ireland, I could feel the heat of the sun blazing from a cloudless blue sky, see every rock and flower of the Cretan hills and sense the danger that Nicola was walking into as she decides to go for a solitary trek through the unfamiliar countryside.
In the wild, isolated landscape around her, she accidentally stumbles upon a wounded Englishman, Mark, who’s been shot but doesn’t want her help, even though he’s clearly in need of medical assistance. Nicola, like all of Mary Stewart’s heroines, is an independent woman who is embracing the freedoms that life in the sixties bring. She has a job (a junior secretary in the British Embassy in Athens), speaks passable Greek, and has no desire to have a man tell her what to do – especially a man with a bullet hole in his leg, who is clearly keeping secrets from her.
The dangerous situation Nicola finds herself in escalates as her relationship with the injured Mark develops. She’s not letting him dictate to her and she’s prepared to take as many risks as necessary to find out exactly why he was shot and how she can help. Yet there’s a chemistry between them, although it will only spark if Nicola wants it to.
I loved Nicola’s feistiness, was beguiled the exotic beauty of the location, and was amused by Mark’s desire to look after her and keep her safe, even when she didn’t need him to. But more than anything, I loved how Mary Stewart’s elegant writing kept me hooked for the entire novel and ensured that every single one of her books are like old friends to me now, taken out and re-read whenever I need to be be brought to a place and time where a determined heroine knows what she wants from life, and where, thankfully, she always finds it.
Thank you Sheila – I now want to read it again! Tomorrow, I’ll be welcoming Sophie Weston, choosing her favourites from the 70s…
About Sheila O’Flanagan
Sheila O’Flanagan is the award-winning author of The Hideaway and over twenty other titles, including the Sunday Times bestsellers What Happened That Night, The Missing Wife and If You Were Me. Sheila is also the winner of the Irish Independent Popular Fiction Book of the Year Award, All For You, and the Irish Tatler Woman of The Year for Literature. Sheila’s most recently published novel is The Women Who Ran Away, available as an ebook, in hardcover, and as an ebook – the paperback will follow in March 2021.
In addition to her full-length novels, she has written the bestselling short story collections Destinations, Connections and A Christmas With You, as well as The Crystal Run series for children.
Sheila has always loved telling stories, and after working in banking and finance for a number of years, she decided it was time to fulfill a dream and give writing her own book a go. So she sat down, stuck ‘Chapter One’ at the top of a page, and got started. Sheila is now a full-time writer and lives in Dublin with her husband.