Floriana Farussi is a ten-year-old girl living in poverty in the village of Herba in Tuscany in the summer of 1966. When Dante Bonfanti, the teenage son of a wealthy businessman, catches her spying through the gate of his family’s 15th-century palazzo, he brings her through the main entrance and gives her a tour. With an alcoholic father and an absent mother, Floriana fits in well with the stray animals that populate the grounds, and she charms Dante and his family just as easily. The mermaid garden at La Magdalena becomes her sanctuary. Six years later, Floriana grows into a beautiful young woman, and she and Dante fall in love. Optimistic and innocent, Floriana believes their relationship stands a chance.
In the summer of 2009, Marina Turner runs an Italianate-style hotel in Devon, England, with her beloved husband, Grey. She has poured her heart into restoring it and will do anything to keep it afloat despite being in debt up to her ears. In the hopes of attracting new business, she advertises for an artist-in-residence who will teach her mostly elderly clientele how to paint. Argentine painter Rafa Santoro is the perfect choice; not only is he talented, handsome, and clever, but he seems to be exerting a calming influence on Marina’s grumpy stepdaughter, Clementine – and maybe more than that, too. Rafa is reticent about his past, though, and there’s a hotel burglar on the loose in the area…
Romantic and uplifting without being sappy, the novel lilts smoothly between locales and decades. While the tie between the two plotlines isn’t hard to predict, the twist at the end comes as a surprise. Because it’s classic summer escapism, it can be described as a beach read, but the characters are more complex than you’d expect from that. There’s humor, too, in a subplot involving Clementine’s stuffy boss and the risqué hanky-panky he gets into with his mistress. This is a book to bring outside to read in your own exotic garden, but if you don’t have one, settle back and let Montefiore’s novel conjure up its lush, tranquil atmosphere for you.
The Mermaid Garden was published in June by Touchstone/Simon and Schuster at $24.99 (419pp, hardcover). The British edition, called The House by the Sea, was published by Simon & Schuster UK in July at £12.99.