Sunday, 4 September 2011

The House by the Sea by Santa Montefiore

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Ten year old Floriana, an Italian urchin, abandoned by her mother and left to care for her alcoholic father, falls in love with the gardens of the Villa La Magdalena and the owner's son, Dante.  Convinced it's her destiny to marry Dante and to live happily ever after in the beautiful villa, she ignores the difficulties of money, class and Dante's dangerous father.
Forty years later, Marina and her husband Grey run a luxury hotel on the coast of Devon, but face financial and familial difficulties. Marina is relying on finding a resident artist to boost their income, but this seems unlikely until the charismatic, Argentine Rafa Santoro appears.  He sweeps in and makes everything appear better, but is he all he appears?

I have a bit of strange relationship with Santa Montefiore's books...some are fabulous, I sobbed at the end of "Forget-me-not Sonata" and I loved "The French Gardener", but a couple of the others have been disappointing, i.e. "The Affair" and some other suspects.  I keep buying hoping each new one will live up to my expectations...and this one, nearly did!
The dual stories of Floriana in Tuscany, forty years ago and the present day tribulations of Marina in Devon eventually weave together.  Maybe I read too many books along similar lines or am just familiar with the recurring themes in Montefiore's books, but I knew straight away where it was going and how Rafa fitted in.  I thought far too many clues were dropped when he first arrives at the hotel and so I dropped a star for being predictable!  However, it is beautifully written, particularly the Italian setting and I did want to go along with the ride.
The Italian story was interesting and I got a bit frustrated when it was stopped by the modern day, whinging Clemetine. Floriana's combination of toughness and idealism was understandable and engaging;  I thought Dante a bit two-dimensional, but his weaknesses drives the plot.
Marina is mysterious and contradictory, which is necessary.  Her relationship with everyone in the hotel, including her husband seems to be too needy and she lacked the spark that she must have had when younger.  Rafa is almost a "fairy-godfather" character!   He's too good to be true, but not in a bad way, I still loved him...gorgeous, wise, genuine...he comes in and spreads his fairy dust on everything and everyone, even the self-centred and spoilt Clementine.  Now this was a bit of a problem for me!!  I truly disliked Clementine, all the way through, even when she tried to redeem herself!  I get that Rafa is such a complete and special person that he could see through the "pain and damage" she'd done to herself in maintaining her hatred for Marina, but I couldn't see any redeeming characteristics underneath.  Clementine is spoilt, spiteful and allowed to get away with it and for no good reason - she should have got over it and grown up years ago.  It may be simplistic but I like characters to "earn" their happy ending and Clementine (for me!) came nowhere near!!
There's a lot of supporting characters that I didn't feel were really necessary.  I wanted to know more about Rafa's childhood and how he developed his ability with people, simply having good parenting didn't explain it all.  The whole Raffles/ Baffles plot was a red herring and I thought other parts of the book could have been further developed if it had been dropped.
However, even with my minor grumbles, it's a really pleasant wallow that takes you to another place (good holiday book) and I did enjoy it, so although not one (only in my opinion) of her greatest, certainly worth looking at.