Monday, December 5, 2011

Summer residency

Why do two book review journals (Booklist and Kirkus) refer to the hero of Mark Mills' The Savage Garden by the wrong last name? Was Adam Strickland's last name changed from Banting just before publication? Curious. And slightly pertinent, since Strickland is a character who -- when confronted with a conundrum like the somewhat askew arrangement of a formal garden in Tuscany, or a room where a murder took place that's been locked for 14 years -- will worry it until he has an answer.

Adam is an art history student at Cambridge in 1958. He lucks into a summer research project, courtesy of his lecturer, Crispin Leonard. He'll study the famed Renaissance garden of the Villa Docci, created in the 1500s to honor Flora, a young woman who died shortly after her marriage to an elderly Docci. The Doccis still reside at the Villa, and the family is slowly recovering from the years of occupation during World War II, when the eldest son was mercilessly killed by the Germans as they prepared to flee the advancing Allies.

When Adam arrives at Villa Docci and begins to explore the garden, something seems slightly off to him -- the garden doesn't follow the symmetrical rules of the period and the statues of the various gods -- the namesake Flora, Narcissus, Hyacinth and Adonis -- have unusual positions or locations. Welcomed into the Villa by the elderly owner, Francesca Docci and her beautiful granddaughter Antonella, Adam ponders this puzzle. He also learns about the circumstances of the death of Emilio -- the heir to the estate -- and that the room where he was murdered hasn't been touched since.

Adam's classical education comes in handy as he breaks the code of the garden using Dante's Inferno and the help of his randy older brother Harry. The Doccis seem less enthusiastic about his interest in Emilio's death, and getting too close may endanger his life. He's not even sure that Antonella -- with whom he has fallen in love -- will tolerate his curiosity.

I really enjoy an art- or literature-based historical mystery (Possession anyone? The Historian?) so this is right down my alley. The setting is wonderfully described -- the lush but slightly forbidding garden, the hot Tuscan summer, formal late-night dinners of wine and pasta at the Villa. But I found it dragging a bit. Adam's discoveries seemed to all be of the "by Jove!" variety (plus he always seemed to react precisely that way) -- revelations that seemed to pop fully formed into his head. The romance seemed a little stilted (I was folding laundry during the big lovemaking scene and it was not enough to make me stop ... folding that is).

There was also an all-revealing letter at the end that reeked of melodrama to me. And, in an audiobook huh? moment, the very beginning includes a literary device that confused me enough that I started the audiobook again. In the print version, this device would be recognizable as you turned the first page. When I was "look[ing] inside this book" at -- in search of the map of the garden -- I came across the novel's first page, and I could not remember what it meant. Who "was known, primarily, for his marrows"? Huh? It seems odd to start this way, and then drop it immediately.

A narrator I seem to have no prayer of finding out about online, Ian Stuart, reads the novel. (My library's catalog says that he was born in 1927 [making him 80 when he read this ... which just can't be, can it?].) Stuart reads in a resonant, baritone-ish English accent. In the novel's long descriptive passages, he is pleasant to listen to. When things get a little dicey for our hero, Stuart can deliver the tension and excitement.

He doesn't voice characters vastly differently, relying instead on the emotion of what each person is saying to distinguish between them, so figuring out who was speaking wasn't a problem. All the Italians in the novel speak in Italian-accented English. When Stuart did speak Italian, which he did occasionally, he sounded authentic to me. I kept wanting to hear more of 'ch' sound when he pronounced Docci, in my ears Stuart gave it more of a soft 'g.' A minor quibble. If there are other Ian Stuart narrations out there, I'd listen to him again.

Curioser and curioser. Who is Ian Stuart? Who or what is Banting, and why is it a bad last name? Is there a literary reference to "savage garden" that I'm missing? From the Inferno, maybe?

[Adam Strickland compares the statue of Flora to that of Giambologna's Venus in Florence's Boboli Garden. This image of the Venus was retrieved from the museum's website.]

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills
Narrated by Ian Stuart
Brilliance Audio, 2007. 8:15

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