Hotel Portofino by J. P. O’Connell – a multi- layered enthralling historical novel of an Italian hotel in difficult times

Hotel Portofino by J. P. O’Connell

This is a tremendous historical novel which could well be the start of a very successful series based on multiple characters and various themes. Set in a select hotel on the Italian coast in 1924, every character has a backstory and motivations which are explored to a certain extent, and much is hinted at in this novel, labelled “Volume 1” in my copy. It has already been adapted for television, and certainly the writing is very visual. Much is made of the setting, from the beautifully decorated rooms in the hotel, the product of the taste and design of Bella, the owner, to the coastal scenery of beaches, caves, rocks and harbours. The hot weather is tempered by the storms that bring back memories to those who were at the Front eight years before, and the rainstorms that can make people seem defeated by the elements. The gathering storms of the rise of facism even in a small town is not just theoretical, but a personal danger to some individuals, and a danger of ruin to others. The relationships between the characters are not just romantic, though there are strong elements of that; there are also complex connections which are perhaps hinted at rather than made explicit. Nothing and no one is simple and straightforward, each character is complex and given real depth. Overall this is a multi – layered book which I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review.  

As the book opens Bella is preparing the Epsom Suite for some important guests, but it is also important to note that all those staying have some special consideration. The Drummond – Wards’ are of special importance to Bella and her family.The mother, Julia, is a ex – love of Cecil, Bella’s aristocratic but feckless husband, while the daughter Rose is being considered as a potential husband for her son Lucian. Lucian is a scarred survivor from the recent War, a complex young man interested in but not dedicated to art. His friend Nish is a doctor who helped Lucian survive his grievous injuries suffered in battle; his physical wounds and his mental scars will continue to mark his life. Bella has brought her daughter Alice with her to Italy, a young widow with a daughter Lottie. Alice was influenced into a strong Christan faith when first confronted by grief, and it has affected her world view. Other characters emerge throughout the book as more guests arrive and become established. One of my favourites is the complex Lady Latchmere, whose true personality will only emerge with the gentle approach of a fascinated Bella. 

Throughout the season which marks the main beginning of the hotel there are challenges which emerge among the characters who are established in their roles in the story. Lucian is not immediately convinced that he wishes to be with Rose to the exclusion of other people; he is connected to a local woman who is very different, and becomes attracted to a young woman with a difficult past and who is deceptively thoughtful. There is the dramatic element of demands from a local corrupt official on the very existence of the hotel, the danger of local politics in other ways, and other pressures on Bella from various sources. The writing is dramatic, but well balanced and never descends into melodrama. This is an account of the life of a community over a few weeks, which refers in itself to the works of Christie and others, and is truly enthralling. I found I was drawn in and struggled to put this novel down once engaged. I recommend it on many levels, and look forward to any possible future instalments.