Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Emma's Review: The Temptation of Gracie by Santa Montefiore

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Never give up on your dreams, no matter how long you hold on to them . . .

When Gracie Burton stumbles upon an advertisement for a week-long cookery course in the heart of the Tuscan countryside,she cannot resist, and ploughs her life savings into the trip.

Her only family – daughter Carina and granddaughter Anastasia – are hesitant about what has prompted this seemingly random venture. But they have no sense of Gracie’s past; of what could possibly be calling her to Italy. They have no idea that Gracie is harbouring the secret of an extraordinary life that preceded them . . .

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Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for my copy of The Temptation of Gracie to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

Santa Montefiore's new book The Temptation of Gracie takes the reader on a journey to the Tuscan countryside as one woman attempts to reconcile the past with the present. It is a story of love, loss, friendship and family set over the period of one week during a holiday away in a beautiful castle where the main characters embark on a cookery course. The author weaves the past with the present to convey the story as our main female protagonist Gracie is forced to confront what she has kept hidden deep inside her for so many years.

If only her daughter Carina and granddaughter Anastasia knew the intriguing and colourful life Gracie led so many years ago they would be more than surprised. This trip the three women undertake together will prove life changing in more ways than one. Each will have their perspectives altered and the big secret that has been kept under wraps for so long will be revealed as the Tuscan countryside works its magic and old memories are stirred and come simmering to the surface. Gracie discovers you can't hide something forever when so many outside forces are working to have the truth make itself known.

The story opens with Gracie living in the small coastal village of Badley Compton. It is a beautiful place to live but does have that mentality of everyone knowing everyone else's business before you yourself even know what your business is. Gracie is living by herself since her husband died, she is shy and timid and likes order and her routine. She has forgotten what it is like to be in love, young and reckless. She prefers to stay in her shell and has kept herself safe for decades. A chance glance through a magazine sees Gracie inspired. There is a photograph of a Tuscan villa Castle Montefosco, it inspires an urge, a longing inside her and before she knows it she has booked a place on a cookery course to be held at the villa. Soon the grapevine is a buzz with the news that unadventurous Gracie who never goes anywhere is off to Italy. The Badley Compton Ladies Book Group, not that they get round to reading many books, of which Gracie is a member are astonished and all abuzz with the news. Flappy Scott Booth the queen bee of the club is aghast. How can they manage to hold the planned events while Gracie is away?

Gracie is like her doormat who will do everything that Flappy doesn't want to do. No way can Gracie venture abroad on her own. It will be an utter disaster. Badley Compton featured for several chapters at the beginning of the story and for one or two at the end. Honestly, I had no idea why this was the case, it felt like these scenes were from a different book entirely and were just so out of place and not needed. One chapter dedicated to explaining where Gracie lived and that she was leaving on an adventure would have sufficed. It wasn't necessary to go into so much detail about Flappy and her nature and various eccentricities and acquaintances. It brought nothing to the story as a whole and rather took away from the scenes set back in the past which were the strongest in the book overall. This aspect of the story was very much surplus to requirements and I thought it would be better suited to a different book focusing on Badley Compton. This was Gracie's story not Flappy's and at times this was lost in the bigger picture.

I much preferred the elements of the story that were set in Italy. As Gracie arrives with Carina and Anastasia at the castle to enjoy the cookery course so sets in motion a chain of events for everyone. Carina feels deep guilt that she has neglected her mother and to an even greater extent her daughter. She is obsessed with her job and can never leave her phone out of her hand for fear of missing an important email or phone call. Over the course of the week she has some form of enlightenment that will see her radicalise her outlook on life and how she interacts with her family and friends. She starts to come to an understanding that she can't go on the way she is or her family will be lost to her forever. For Anastasia the holiday is a chance to embark on new adventures and to be that little bit daring when it comes to exploring romance.

I felt we flitted a little bit too quickly between Gracie's recollections of the past and the goings on in the present. That I never got a chance to fully absorb, digest and contemplate what was going on in the time period I was reading about. It also came across as if Gracie was much older in the present day than she was. She was only in her late sixties but the way sentences were written and that Carina and Anastasia at times treated Gracie as if she was feeble and very vulnerable when she was very much strong and alive and kicking made me think I was reading about a much older woman perhaps heading into the final stage of her life. That all the resolution had to be sought before it was far too late. The ending regarding the changing of the relationship between Gracie, Carina and Anastasia felt rushed and under developed, like it happened and was dealt with before the reader had even known it had occurred. If less time had been given at the beginning to Badley Compton and in the end maybe  the re-bonding and reconnecting between the women could have had more time to be explored.

The best part of this book was uncovering the secret Gracie had been keeping from her family for so long and why she felt the need to do this. Through Gracie recollecting the past and going back to over 40 years previous to the 1950's we see she led a life very different from what she does now. If the ladies of the book club knew the real Gracie it would give them enough news fodder to feed off and dine out on for many years to come. As this was the best part of the book I won't delve into any detail as to what led Gracie to living such an extra ordinary life. Suffice to say this aspect of the book was very interesting ad the detail surrounding shall we say her occupation was well researched and written and was very surprising. Who knew such things occurred at the time?

I was glad to that a certain storyline regarding Gracie's uncle was included, it didn't feel patronising or unrealistic in any sense of the word. I will say romance, forbidden love, heartbreak and playing a dangerous game all form part of Gracie's secret. I very much enjoyed all of this but would have liked even further development on the romance front. As for Gracie in the present and her ending there was a very surprising element which when revealed helped me make sense of some things I had found confusing while reading. But still I would have loved to have heard from a certain character which would have allowed for some filling in of the gaps with regard to the missing years.

I really wanted to love The Temptation of Gracie as I have been a big fan of Santa Montefiore for years and years but this story simply didn't blow me away and have me lost in its content. Gracie came across as very weak in the present day and then seemed to be so strong and willing in the past. How could someone have changed so dramatically? At times it felt like I was reading two separate stories and a successful emergence of the two didn't occur. It's a nice enough summer read but not the most memorable from this author.

If you are new to this author I would start with her earlier books such as the brilliant classics Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree, The Butterfly Box or The Forget Me Not Sonata. This is the Santa Montefiore I grew to love and devoured. I read this book simply because I love the author and I think I will always read whatever she publishes, I just hope a little bit of the magic that I found in the above mentioned books can be re-established in future books.

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