Madame Solario by Gladys Huntingdon from Persephone.

I received this book for review from Persephone and was excited to start on it. If I am honest, I was disappointed. Possibly I have lost my taste for books without a murder or dramatic action, possibly I was missing something that everyone else appreciated. Either way, I really struggled to get to the end, which is not a problem I usually have with Persephone books, which I have read and reread for many years.

The subject of this leisurely novel is an Edwardian September  in an expensive resort, Cadenabbia on the Lake of Como.Bernard is a young man who is on a European trip after graduating  and before, as it transpires, joining a provincial bank as arranged by his family. The atmosphere is therefore wistful, as he realises that this is a final period of freedom enjoying and observing a lifestyle that he cannot join. He indulges in the petty social life of the hotel and resort as romances, jealousies and day trips surround those who share meals in  dining rooms, boats and walks. Huntingdon describes each point in heavy detail, though every time some emotion, some crisis looks possible, she changes the focus, the names and the setting very slightly. We observe things from Bernard’s point of view, and his uncertainties and lack of self knowledge dominate the text.

The arrival of Madame Solario, a woman with a whiff of scandal, great beauty, and a wardrobe of individual effects which Huntingdon describes in frankly mind- numbing detail, even for those of us with a passing interest in clothes of the period, changes the atmosphere. Bernard becomes devoted to the mysterious lady, making excuses to see her and accidentally on purpose meeting her on walks. He begins to see the other guests as relating to her, as possible rivals for her affection, even though he has developed a crush on her that her knows cannot ever be fulfilled  as her style, maturity and his own circumstances show that she is just destined to be his romantic obsession for a few brief weeks or days. We never discover what she thinks, why she does what she does, and essentially her own view on her life. She may be as serene as she seems, she may be desperate with longing for someone or something; we do not ever see things from her point of view.

Her brother arrives and creates a stir of interest and some jealousy among the other guests. They talk intimately,  and he enters her room to continue their discussions. We have small pictures of her rooms, their conversations, and fact that her brother is not all he seems. Again possible scandal, possible events beckon. I will not spoil the end, but …

I found the book very difficult to engage with, and it had little sense of suspense for me. I have read long books, and enjoyed comedies of manners in which the events are small scale and local. This book reminded me of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier,  in its setting of leisured enjoyment in a resort for the wealthy Edwardians. I found the daily round of sitting in the sun and being waited on by semi invisible servants a little tedious in this novel, and longed for  something to happen.

I would hate to put you off this book. It is elegantly written, the imagery is stunning and the descriptions are beautiful. It is a subtle book, delicately constructed, with consistent characters. It reflects its time well, and flows gently. Possibly I was not in the mood for this novel, and others have enjoyed it over many years since its first publication. It adds to the variety of books published by Persephone, and I was glad  to have the opportunity to read it.

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