Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The French Gardener by Santa Montefiore




My Rating: 2.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.20 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.62 / 5.00






Miranda Claybourne moves to Hartington House in Dorset to get away from the rat race in London and because her son, Gus, is a problem child. He is aggressive with other children and it is hoped that the countryside will help him and his younger sister, Storm, to make friends. Miranda is a writer, so she can work anywhere, but her husband, David, stays in London during the week because he works in the City.

When we first meet Miranda she is struggling to cope with the children and misses the glamor of her London lifestyle, while David has largely checked out of their marriage and spends the weekends relaxing in front of the television. However, when she decides to hire a cook and gardener she meets some of the local community and gradually begins to integrate. Then Jean-Paul arrives and everything changes. He is very French and very handsome and he offers to recreate the once famous gardens if she will allow him to stay in the small cottage at the bottom of the garden. As Miranda is clearing out the cottage she finds a scrapbook full of notes and pictures. When she begins to read it she learns that the previous owner, Ava, created the famous garden in conjunction with a wonderful young French man.

We follow as Miranda and her children are reconnected with nature as they rebuild the garden under the tuition of Jean-Paul. Meanwhile, we follow Ava as she builds the original garden and falls hopelessly in love with the French gardener. We see how their affair develops and how it affects her and her family.


I have to admit that I was somewhat uneasy about reading this book because I knew that infidelity played a large role in the story. In fact we are presented with two separate affairs: one in each timeline. Ava’s affair is presented as an irresistible urge that she fights against for a long time, even sending her lover away to remove the temptation. However, her husband’s actions place the two together again and she gives in to the sensuality of the illicit romance. In doing this she places her needs above those of her husband and children, so I had very little sympathy for the grief she feels when the affair finally collapses. She spends the rest of her life punishing herself and dedicated to caring for her aging husband.

David’s affair is more sordid, largely conducted out of boredom with his marriage and a feeling of entitlement. He does not have romantic feelings for his mistress who is engaged in the affair as a way to get back at Miranda and her ‘perfect’ life. I was highly dissatisfied with the conclusion to this affair and the consequences. He suddenly has an epiphany that he really loves his wife and children and, with very little fuss or effort, he returns to the bosom of his family. Unless we are supposed to guess that there was extensive counseling and work on the marriage, this seemed to be far too easy on him and struck me as unbelievable.

Putting the infidelity to one side was not easy for me, but the portrayal of the magic of nature, and the garden in particular, was strong enough to keep me reading. The author obviously has a deep connection with the earth and countryside that shone through in her writing and resonated with my own love of the natural world. I liked how she understood the healing qualities of nature, especially with regards to Miranda’s children who blossom when they are allowed the freedom to explore the world around them.

In fact, the vivid descriptions of nature were about the only thing that I enjoyed in the book. Many of the characters are highly annoying and unsympathetic. Miranda is a mother who ignores and resents her children, although she does at least pay some attention to them, unlike David. She is shallow, spoilt, judgmental and snobbish. I was getting very tired of reading about her (insert famous designer name here) shoes / jacket / dress and how she misses going out to (insert famous name here) restaurant / shop. David was simply a selfish, thoughtless adulterer, with no redeeming qualities as far as I could see. Everything Ava does is all about her: she is incredibly selfish. Even before the affair she spends all her time in the garden, ignoring her children and doting husband, though she is consistently portrayed as a perfect wife and mother. Then there is Gus who enjoys beating a donkey with a stick and pulling the legs off spiders: delightful!

The other thing that really made me struggle was the wealth of the main two families. I grew up in a working class family in England and so I find it very difficult to feel much sympathy for a woman who owns a huge manor house with huge grounds, employs a cook / housekeeper and a gardener and drives a Range Rover. Both families come from money and have no understanding of the lives lived by their neighbors and employees. I know that money cannot buy happiness, but it certainly can help to remove nasty things like hunger and homelessness. Knowing a little about the author I know that she also comes from this background, so she is writing from her own experience, but I still wanted to give Miranda, in particular, a shake for being so self-pitying. I kept wondering why she had bothered to have the children because she obviously did not want to deal with them and was counting the days until she could send them off to boarding school.

The writing was a little melodramatic at times and some of the names were very odd: Storm and Peach being the two worst. I disliked the way we jumped about from one point of view to another all the time: we ended up in the head of a donkey at one point, which was just strange. I was also unimpressed by the attempt at a third romance story between the shop owner and the farmer, which seemed forced and totally pointless. Indeed, the secondary characters were mostly set decoration and very clich├ęd: gay hairdresser, fat lady vicar, etc.

In short, I am not sure what the author was trying to say about infidelity but she certainly loves gardens.

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