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?