It’s 1958 and 22-year-old British student Adam Strickland has been given the opportunity to study a Renaissance garden at the Villa Docci in Tuscany. Of course, he jumps at the chance. Signora Docci will soon be leaving her home in the care of her son, Maurizio, but until she goes she knows the garden has some secrets to give up.
Mark Mills’ historical mystery The Savage Garden is a slow, thoughtful and complex puzzle of a book that begs you to pay attention. Adam arrives in Tuscany and “In almost no time he had fallen under Villa Docci’s spell.” The garden in question was built as a memorial to Flora Bonfadio. Her husband Frederico Docci had built the estate and then added the garden after her premature death at just 25.
The memorial garden at Villa Docci sat firmly within this tradition, and although it couldn’t match its eminent counterparts at Villa di Castello, Villa Gamberaia and Villa Campi for sheer size and grandiosity, it stood out for its human dimensions, its purity of purpose, the haunting message of love and loss enshrined in its buildings, inscriptions, and groupings of statues buried in the woods.
It is hard not to be caught up in Adam’s story, especially if you have spent any time at all in Italy. Interactions with the locals and with Signora Docci’s family, including her lovely granddaughter, Antonella, offer Adam both distraction and cause for concern: not all the pieces of the family’s history quite add up.
Although The Savage Garden isn’t a ‘page-turner’ in the strictest sense of the word (the novel’s pace is relatively slow and the nods to Greek mythology and Italian history were probably mostly lost on me), I still felt wholly invested in Adam’s story. Signora Docci is delightful and I enjoyed their relationship. I also really liked Adam’s older brother, Harry. He’s a sort of irreverent character, someone at odds with Adam’s more scholarly personality and while Harry certainly seems to rub Adam the wrong way, his arrival in Italy breathes fresh air into Adam’s hot and insular life. There are two mysteries at Villa Docci, and Adam is keen on solving them both.
It’s worth the effort to tag along.