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Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills, 2007, * * *

Two murders committed 400 years apart form the core of British author Mills's second novel (after Amagansett, which won a CWA Dagger Award). In 1958, Cambridge undergraduate Adam Strickland, who's studying a curious Tuscan Renaissance garden for his art history thesis, is equally intrigued by both the garden of the Villa Docci estate and its elderly owner, Signora Francesca Docci. Built by the villa's first owner, Federico Docci, in 1577, the garden was intended as a memorial to his wife, Flora, who died when she was only 25. In the course of his research, Adam begins to sense that events, both past and present, are not as clear-cut as they appear. In particular, he discovers that there are several versions of the death of Signora Docci's oldest son, Emilio, who was shot by the villa's German occupiers at the end of WWII. In Mills' hands this becomes a grandly written literary thriller that I found alternately fascinating and frustrating. It was frustrating because the opening sections move much too slowly and although each description of a statue or a landscape or a painting is lovely, there are far too many of them. My other objection is that much of Mills' plot is simply far-fetched where too many connections in The Savage Garden, like those in Sherlock Holmes stories, are more clever than plausible.

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