Author: Beatrice Masini / Reviewer: Kelly Lyonns
Synopsis: (Pan Macmillan 2016) Nineteenth-century Italy. A young woman arrives at a beautiful villa in the countryside outside Milan. Bianca, a gifted young watercolourist, has been commissioned to illustrate the plants in the magnificent grounds and is invited into the heart of the family by the eccentric poet Don Titta, his five children, his elegant and delicate wife and powerful, controlling mother. As the seasons pass, the young watercolourist develops her art – inspired by the landscape around her – and attracts many admirers. And while most of the household’s servants view her with envy, she soon develops a special affection for one housemaid, who, she is intrigued to learn, has mysterious origins. But as Bianca’s determination to unlock the secrets of the villa grows, she little notices the dangers that lie all around her. Who is the mysterious woman she has glimpsed in the gardens? What could Don Titta and his friends be whispering about so furtively? And while Bianca watches so carefully for clues, who is watching her?
In The Watercolourist, set against the intoxicating background of an Italy on the cusp of change, a young woman’s naive curiosity will take her far into the territory of hidden secrets, of untold truth and of love.
At once a romance, historical and mystery story, The Watercolourist springs from the pages like the vibrant blossoms of the Brusuglio estate garden that Bianca has been commissioned to paint.
It’s impossible not to smell the earth, feel the cold dreariness of Autumn or see the glory of the garden. The distant undercurrent of political turmoil remains nebulous, overshadowed by family history and the staff’s superstitious gossip about ghosts.
Bianca has talent, intelligence and the indulgences of a recently deceased father who unconventionally allowed her independence. Her hesitant steps to embrace life as a ‘modern’ independent woman are hampered by her social naiveté and youthful inexperience.
You immediately suspect some of Bianca’s interest in her maid, Pia, stems not only from their shared youth, but her own feelings of isolation and abandonment. Bianca floats above the messy human landscape, safely focussed on her gardens and flowers, until the fateful day she starts drawing the dead branches of a city Winter, while obsessing about the origins of her maid. Being privy to Bianca’s thoughts, you often cringe, seeing the coming fall.
Her quest to unravel the mystery of Pia’s paternity quickly teaches her that the “botany of affections is an inexact science” and that relationships are complicated and strewn with misunderstandings.
Pia herself challenges Bianca’s ‘revelations’ saying that she is content with her life and perhaps it is Bianca who has a problem. Pure, innocent, white Bianca finally chooses a colour for her life. For her, innocence, like the ephemeral flowers she paints, falls away gradually, catastrophically, one petal at a time. Even at the end, transiting into her new life seems inevitable, natural even, as if one season has simply melted into another.
A master storyteller at work. Everything is told from Bianca’s point of view, except when it isn’t – and that is a great trick. The unexplained viewpoint remains like a personal memory, so later in the book, you have an ‘ah-ha’ moment and abruptly desert Bianca emotionally, temporarily anyway.
All the twists of a good mystery are interwoven with the fascination of sometimes morbid historical facts. There is even a happy ending of sorts for the romantically inclined. You might lose patience with Bianca’s soft focus tunnel vision, but that’s part of her journey.
Rating: 5 out of 5
With thanks to Pan Macmillan for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Connect with the publisher, Pan Macmillan – here