Monday, August 01, 2011

Book review: The Mermaid Garden, by Santa Montefiore

Santa Montefiore’s novels combine gorgeously rendered settings, touching romance, and characters facing real world issues such as societal pressures and generational conflicts. Although one of its plotlines is set in the present day (2009) and the other forty years earlier, The Mermaid Garden doesn’t have the hallmarks of a historical novel and shouldn’t be judged as one. Other than an absence of technology, an emphasis on class differences, and the mention of a Bob Dylan song, there isn’t much to indicate a timeframe in the earlier storyline. It’s a strong sense of place rather than time that predominates, along with the impressions that the past never really goes away and that second chances are there for the taking, for those courageous enough to grab them.

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.

11 comments:

  1. I haven't read this author before, but it sounds like a book I would enjoy!

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  2. Is it superficial of me to say I was drawn in by the cover? It suits the book perfectly, though - and if you like it, you'll probably enjoy the book just as well!

    I've also read her first novel, Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree, set in Argentina. I liked it okay but found the characters and plot overly dramatic. I'm glad I gave the author another chance.

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  3. I read this book and I really liked it as well. The descriptions in the book were beautiful and I enjoyed reading about all of the characters.

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  4. The cover does make it very tempting. It sounds like a really lovely sort of read--just perfect for the hot summer we've been having!

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  5. Anne, your blog looks like the perfect place to feature this book!

    Danielle, I took this novel to read by the lake when visiting my aunt and uncle for the weekend. It was the perfect setting for it!

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  6. Anonymous11:43 AM

    Covers make a lot of difference. I frankly can't display books with awful covers - no one will pick them up, no matter what the contents. If you have a bad cover, you are swimming uphill.

    Sarah Other Librarian

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  7. That's one reason I wish my library kept the covers on fiction - they're left on when they arrive as new books, but after they're moved to the stacks, the covers come off. And fiction with plain covers tends to sit there.

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  8. Beautiful review, Sarah. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this one.

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  9. The cover caught my eyes too, first thing that I checked your blog. It's beautiful, and the review sounds like something I'd love to take a closer look at. I'll be watching for this one.

    Thanks, Sarah!

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  10. Sounds like a good one and I love the cover. Will be adding this one to my WL!

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  11. I'm going to grab one of the author's previous novels - The French Gardener sounds like it has similar themes, and it's discounted at B&N now, should anyone else be interested!

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