The Savage Garden

Mark Mills’s novel The Savage Garden is an entertaining comfort read, the sort of book that you don’t have to take seriously and one that can help you while away a cold winter evening (or a hot summer afternoon, or whatever).  I wrote on Litlove’s blog recently that all I ask from comfort reading is that it not annoy me with bad writing, and this one didn’t (okay, there were a couple awkward moments during the love scenes, but nothing unforgivable).

The novel tells the story of Adam Stickland who is beginning to write his thesis at Cambridge and finds himself invited to Italy to study the garden at the Villa Docci, just outside of Florence (all thesis subjects should be that easy to find! and they should all involve Italy!).  Upon arrival, he finds himself introduced to an entire cast of characters — the old Signora Docci, who is ailing but charming and flirtatious; her beautiful granddaughter Antonella, who, of course, is mysterious and captivating; their various relatives; the suspicious servant Maria; the attractive and sexually frustrated innkeeper Signora Fanelli; and assorted townspeople, each with their own uncertain past.

The novel takes place in 1958, and the town and the villa residents are still grappling with the aftermath of World War II, and especially with what happened one disastrous night as the German army retreated and violence unexpectedly broke out at the villa.  Adam learns that Signora Docci’s son Emilio was killed by the Germans under circumstances that are not quite clear.  Although the novel doesn’t read as a traditional mystery (it’s too desultory with the mystery aspects of the plot and it doesn’t have a real detective), there are two secrets at the heart of the story — one of them is the question of what exactly happened to Emilio, and the other concerns the garden Adam is set to research.  It’s a formal garden with statues of classical figures, and Adam finds it strangely unsettling.  It was created in the Renaissance by a grieving husband as a tribute to his dead wife.  Except there is more to the story, and it soon becomes Adam’s job to find out what that is.  He reads Ovid and Dante in an attempt to figure out the message the statues are meant to send, and it’s fun to watch Adam use literature to piece the clues together and solve the puzzle.

These two plots, these mysteries, keep Adam busy — when he’s not already busy pursuing Antonella or glaring at her suspiciously surly uncle or trying to manage his out-of-control artistic brother.  This book is such a fantasy — attractive, smart, insightful but not too bookish protagonist travels to Italy, meets beautiful women, solves mysteries, uncovers material for thesis, and generally has a good time.  What’s wrong with a little fantasy now and then?

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

8 responses to “The Savage Garden

  1. verbivore

    I can be so picky with comfort reads that I usually avoid newer fiction altogether and grab a Jane Austen. It’s a bad habit because I’m sure I miss out on good books I would otherwise enjoy, but at least I know I am never disappointed. I’m glad the Mills book was a good, light read.

  2. I enjoyed this for exactly the same reasons as you – it was light and fun but it didn’t treat me like an idiot. I’d read another book by him when I needed a pleasing rest for my brain!

  3. I never got round to writing about it when I read it earlier this year but I enjoyed this too – an easy and quite satisfying read. I liked the references to Dante and Ovid and the puzzle of the garden.

  4. I’m really glad you enjoyed this. It’s a nice light read, but intelligent as well with the different plots and a bit of a mystery running through it as well. I also liked the parts about Ovid and Dante, which made me want to read both authors. And I know what you mean by liking a comfort read that is also well written. Fluffy sorts of books can be fun, but if they are written too simply it’s sort of a turn off (I feel like I am wasting my time).

  5. Sounds like just the right kind of fantasy to me, and if the writing isn’t annoying, well, all the better!

  6. aerussell

    Sounds wonderful! I’d never heard of the book before, but I too enjoy a good comfort read that is just going to give one pleasure as opposed to leaving one with heavy thoughts. This book is definetly on my to – read list now!

  7. Oh this sounds like fun! I agree with you, thesis subjects should be easy to find and involve Italy. Too bad I didn’t think of that before I majored in English! Though if I had been clever enough I might have come up with a reason to travel to Venice to study Henry James.

  8. Verbivore — I’ve been like you in the past, turning only to what I know will work. I’m enjoying branching out with my comfort reading a bit, but it’s definitely a risk, particularly since I’m so bad about putting bad books down. Relying on trustworthy bloggers’ opinions helps, but still, I understand your reluctance!

    Litlove — I wouldn’t mind reading another book of his either, although there are so many other interesting comfort reads you have mentioned and Danielle has mentioned, that I’m sure to turn to something else first.

    BooksPlease — yes, the literary allusions are fun, and they bring comfort reading to a different level — it’s a little exercise for the brain while enjoying the comfort of it!

    Danielle — yeah, if something is badly written, I find myself getting irritated and annoyed, which destroys the whole purpose of comfort reading! I’ve read The Inferno, but not the other parts of Paradise Lost, and I’ve never read Ovid. I’m curious about both.

    Emily — you’re right, it is the right kind of fantasy. Maybe just a little too male — there were some lines about breasts pushing against tight shirts that made me laugh, but still, an academic, literary love story in Italy can’t be that bad.

    aerussell — I hope you enjoy it! I wouldn’t have heard of the book either, except Danielle sent me a copy, which was very nice!

    Stefanie — I clearly wasn’t thinking either when I majored in English! Why do these thoughts always occur too late??

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