Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Some loves are worth sacrificing everything for . . .
Santina is spending her final days at her home, Villa San Vito, in the beautiful Italian town of Positano. As she decides the fate of the magnificent eighteenth century palazzo she must confront the choices that led her here.
In 1949, hoping to escape poverty, young Santina becomes housekeeper to a distinguished British major and his creative, impulsive wife, Adeline.
When they move to Positano, Santina joins them, raising their daughter as Adeline’s mental health declines. With each passing year, Santina becomes more deeply entwined with the family, trying to navigate her complicated feelings for a man who is much more than an employer – while hiding secrets that could shatter the only home she knows . . .
Many thanks to Lucy Richardson from Harper Collins for my copy of The Secret Legacy to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
The Secret Legacy by Sara Alexander begins as Santina Guida sits in the house she has called home for so many years in Positano on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. She knows she does not have long left and she wishes to recall her life and how she came to live in such a grand house. She begins a series of letters which she hopes will reveal her truth. The book doesn't take the form of letters rather it is mentioned that this is what Santina is doing. The story gets going in 1949 when Santina is a young child living in the mountains above a small fishing village with her brother Marco and her mother and father. Times are still tough after the war and their father is a brute and highly unlikely to change. Tragedy strikes and the children are left motherless and the lives of Santina and Marco change forever.
Several years pass and Santina makes the best of a bad situation and I think this is what she does throughout the course of the novel. For the most part of her life I wouldn't call her living or working life ideal or full of endless happiness but she does the best with what she is presented with. Heartbreak and sacrifice and hidden secrets all play dominant roles throughout the story. Initially I thought there was a lot of tooing and frooing to reach the point where Santina becomes a maid/baby carer for Henry, the Major, and his wife Adeline. The story could have just cut to the chase and excluded Mr. Benn and Mr.George, this brought nothing to the story except prolonging her meeting with the two people who would go on to shape her life in more ways than one. A chapter or two would have sufficed to explain how she ended up back in Italy, her dreams of going to America put on the long finger as the spell of Henry and Adeline is one hard to escape from.
I thought Santina just felt duty bound for most of her working life. That she had her own dreams and aspirations but the more she became deeply involved in the intricacies and the unusual relationship that existed between Henry and Adeline coupled with the reappearance of a brother she believed gone forever she was lost to her heart. She found herself in a situation where you almost have the mad Mrs. Rochester type hidden away up at the top of the house due to her mental illness in this case brought about by post partum depression. Whilst Henry and Santina are both doing their best to keep life as normal for the baby Elizabeth whilst trying not to upset the apple cart for fear of what Adeline might do. At what point does a working relationship cross over into something else and in this case should it be explored further? Or should Santina stay true to her Italian roots and embrace the traditions and customs and accept the hand of a man who seems to also be there for her at every step of the way?
Even when sinister undercurrents start making themselves known and greater events are at work much bigger than Santina can control. Regarding this there was an awful lot unspoken and this is where I thought I had to read between the lines to suss out what was actually going on. Was Santina a pawn in a bigger game thanks to family or would she be better off remaining cocooned in the villa with Henry, Elizabeth and Adeline?The book progresses over the years that Santina spends with the family.
I loved the setting and descriptions of the village and its people but what was very good was all the mentions of food and the baking and creating. It plays such a pivotal role for Santina and the relationships she develops and to be honest the descriptions were mouth watering. So too was the time taken to describe the care and attention given to tending the fruit and veg garden as it is a form of therapy and also bonding. I don't begrudge the choices Santina made in her life, for the situation she was part of there really was nothing that could be done to alleviate suffering. I just wish that there wasn't so much dancing around issues and how people were really feeling. Expressing things and saying what they felt in their hearts needed to happen much earlier. Santina was a complex character and even after finishing reading this book I still think there are sides to her that I want to know more about.
The Secret Legacy is vastly different from her first novel Under a Sardinian Sky in the fact that I found this one very much character driven and based. The element of mystery and suspense and some jaw dropping reveals present in book one were not to be found here. Yes there was a shocking secret but as the reader knew of it as it occurred that moment of revelation and surprise did not materialise for me. The major plot-lines seemed to ebb and flow around the major characters and took a sideline as so much development was given to the two main characters Santina and Henry. At times I found the book hard to follow as there was so much description where one or two lines would have sufficed instead of entire pages. Coupled with that is that I felt the reader was left to interpret an awful lot themselves, we had to assume certain things were going on without any actual confirmation or explanation given. There was a lot of reading between the lines to be done and I felt this book required all my concentration when reading to keep on top of all the strands of the story. It wasn't a story I would class as a light, easy read given so much attention is needed to keep on top of things.
I enjoyed the historical element of Santina looking back over her life and in doing so we learn how she reached the point she is at today nearing the end point of her life. But overall this story was a bit of a mixed bag for me with rather an abrupt ending where given so much time and detail had gone into exploring and understanding Santina's life, her motivations and her actions I would have liked a more definitive ending. It ended rather abruptly and it was left for the reader to decide what happened next and whether it was a positive or negative outcome regarding the revelations, I would have liked to have witnessed some of the fall out and repercussions. The Secret Legacy is a very descriptive and visual book which I did appreciate but I feel it was just missing that little something to turn it into a brilliant read.
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