In the hallway I walk down every day to and from my office there is a bookshelf where people put copies of books they don’t need. There are shelves like that on every floor in the building and when visiting other departments you can sometimes find books you haven’t read and you get to take them home. It is like a free bookstore. That is how I found The French Gardener by Santa Montefiore.
I love romance novels, gardening, handsome mysterious strangers, and anything to do with England and France. Throw in thwarted love, a mysterious notebook, a cheating husband, a selfish woman learning to love, a grand manor house, and quirky small-town characters and you had me at hello.
The French Gardener tells the tale of two women who live in the same house but thirty years apart. One, Ava Lightly, is an avid gardener, mother, and well-loved local who, with the help of a young Frenchman her husband pushes on her as payment for a business debt, turns the gardens of Hartington House from nothing to showstopping. The other woman, in present day, is Miranda Claybourne, a loving, but spoiled woman, who has been relocated from her beloved London of shopping and parties to the backwoods of Dorset because her son, Gus, has been kicked out of yet another school and they need to find somewhere he is not known. Miranda is the kind of woman who is overwhelmed—not in a good way—at the thought of making more than fish sticks for her children’s dinner. The story really begins when her husband, David, who spends the week in London at his high-powered banking job, tells her she needs a cook, housekeeper, and gardener and Miranda heads into town to find them.
Montefiore manages to get three or four really good stories told at the same time, and each story is as rich as a full book. There is the mysterious French gardener who shows up to help Miranda bring Ava’s gardens back to life after years of neglect; there are the varied and wonderfully drawn local characters, each of whom weaves their magic on Miranda and the reader; there is the story of Ava and her family and what she sacrifices to protect them; and there is the story of the Claybournes who have lost their way and almost lose each other.
At the heart of the story are Miranda—whose blossoming from removed socialite to warm local is so subtle and real you fall in love with her the way the townspeople do—and Ava’s garden, which opens hearts and sustains generations through its enduring beauty. I did not guess the end of this story at all and relished every detail Montefiore gave me about the house and the garden and the people.
What a thrill it is to find and fall in love with an author who has written more than one book. I cannot wait to get my hands on Santa Montefiore’s other novels. These are the kind of books that you want to give yourself as a treat: a comfy chair, a glass of wine, and a trip wherever she wants to take you because you know the journey and the people you meet will be wonderful.