Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Mermaid Garden includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Santa Montefiore. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Marina, the owner of a charming seaside hotel in England, is struggling with the potential loss of her business, her tumultuous relationship with her stepdaughter, and the lingering repercussions of her mysterious past. In an attempt to improve at least her business outlook, she hires a dashing Argentine artist to teach her guests how to paint, not knowing that he will be the one to unveil her true self and change the course of their lives. Spanning four decades and alternating between Tuscany and Devon, The Mermaid Garden is a story of pain, loss, and the healing power of love.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- Gardens play an important role in both Marina and Floriana’s individual, but connected stories. What do the gardens represent to this character? Does the garden have a different significance for “Marina” than it does for “Floriana”?
- How did you react when you found out that Marina and Floriana was the same person? Were you surprised? Can you think of any clues that would hint to their true identities? Was it difficult to reconcile the two different story lines?
- Do you think the relationship between Marina and Clementine parallels the friendship between Floriana and anyone else?
- Is Clementine’s anger toward Marina justified? Should Clementine be forgiven for her actions?
- Discuss the role of the male characters in the book. How do they compare to the strong-willed women characters in The Mermaid Garden?
- The Polzanze is described as “a mansion that felt like a large cottage…” In your mind’s eye, what does the Polzanze look like?
- Floriana and Dante struggle with the reality of their different social classes in the 1960s. Do you think this kind of tension between classes still exists today?
- Compare and contrast the different kinds of parent/child relationships in the book.
- Floriana relies heavily on her faith to get her through tough moments in her childhood, yet Marina never goes to church. What replaces the support structure of the church in Marina’s life?
- Animals, specifically dogs, recur throughout the novel. What kind of purpose do they serve in the narrative? In a larger context, what role does nature and the characters relationship with nature play in the book?
- The characters in The Mermaid Garden fall in love at various ages—from adolescence to old age. Do you think the definition or meaning of love is dependent on age? Why or why not?
- Which character did you relate to the most and why? Were there any characters who, at first, you disliked, but who later redeemed themselves? Which identity did you relate to the most–Marina or Floriana’s? Why?
- Dante admits to giving up his search for Floriana. Do you think he redeems himself at the end when he helps her find their son? Does he deserve her forgiveness?
- Do you think Rafa and Clementine’s romance parallels Floriana and Dante’s? Why or why not?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- Visit Santa Montefiore’s website at http://www.santamontefiore.co.uk for audio clips, information about Montefiore’s other books, and for exclusive short stories. Have each member of your book club read one of the short stories posted and discuss how the plot and characters compare to The Mermaid Garden.
- Before painting, Rafa has his students stare at a tree for a period of time in order to discover what kind of emotions the tree evokes. Gather some paint and art supplies to try a similar kind of exercise with your reading group.
- The characters in The Mermaid Garden all enjoy spending time outdoors, specifically in gardens. Try hosting your next book club discussion outside among nature! Visit http://www.gardens.com/ to find a local garden near you.
A CONVERSATION WITH SANTA MONTEFIORE
Why did you choose to alternate the story between Floriana and Marina, instead of writing a more traditional, linear narrative?
I knew right from the start that I wanted to write a love story based in Tuscany, about a little local girl who falls in love with the son of a rich tycoon. But, I like to challenge myself, and I’ve written simple linear love stories before. So I chose to run two stories along side each other, like I did in The French Gardener, I suppose, that are mysteriously linked, but the reader only finds out how in the end. I was pleased with the twist, and once I had worked out how to pull it off, I had fun with the build-up. I also enjoyed writing half in Tuscany and half in England, that way I get to write about the two different cultures and the very different nationalities.
Was it difficult to write the story while maintaining the twist that Marina and Floriana is the same person? What did you want to achieve by keeping this “secret” from the reader?
This really was difficult, especially as at first I knew the two plots, but didn’t know how to disguise the fact that Floriana is Marina. I was lucky enough to bump into an old university friend who is a private investigator. He told me that in such a situation, Floriana would change her name in order to hide from Beppe—and adopt a whole new identity and life. This seems so simple in retrospect, but it never occurred to me! After that it wasn’t difficult, and it made writing it so much more entertaining for me—which is why I write in the first place!
Do you draw from your own life for your books? Are any characters in this novel inspired by real people?
Everything and everyone I experience goes into the great big cauldron out of which I draw my plots, characters and themes—it would be inaccurate to say that I don’t base characters on real people, but more often than not I do it subconsciously.
Your characters in The Mermaid Garden are changed by the love they experience. Do you believe romantic love has this kind of power? Similarly, do you believe in love at first sight?
I certainly believe in lust at first sight—I believe two people can feel a deep connection very quickly, that either blossoms into love, or withers. Scott Peck writes in The Road Less Traveled that you only start to love someone when you fall out of being ‘in love’ with them. And I think that’s true. ‘In love’ is heady and driven by physical attraction even before the two people know anything about each other. However, true, unselfish love heals, there’s no doubt in my mind. We are all driven to do great things and become better people when motivated by true love. We all know that love can destroy, but that’s a selfish, ego-driven love, which is not a theme in this book. The love in The Mermaid Garden heals, restores and transforms.
The book has a few fairytale moments, like when Floriana is spared by the evil henchman. Do you draw inspiration from fairytales or folklore for your novels?
Certainly not consciously—but I’m sure I draw both fairytales and folklore out of my subconscious—but anyway, fairytales are inspired by life and I write about life.
Floriana/Marina finds strength and comfort from the sea. Do you have a similar relationship with nature?
I adore nature. I love being by the sea or in woodland. I grew up in the English countryside that is very beautiful and have always sensed something deep and eternal there that raises my spirits and reinforces my belief in a higher power. I’m drawn to those places in my novels and can feel quite ‘high’ just writing about them, as if they fill my chest with light.
You have published a total of ten books. How was the experience of writing The Mermaid Garden different from your previous novels?
I love all the books that I write and it’s hard to choose which one I’ve enjoyed writing the most. I think this one is special as it’s the first book I’ve written for my new UK publishers, Simon & Schuster UK—I’m very excited to be published by S&S both sides of the Atlantic—I wanted to bring the best of my previous books to The Mermaid Garden and return to what I feel I do best. I hope I have succeeded!
On your website, www.santamontefiore.co.uk, you invite readers to submit questions. What is your favorite, or the most memorable, question you’ve received from a reader?
I love having a dialogue with my readers, I’m flattered and thrilled that anyone would bother to write to me! I don’t have any favorites, really, I enjoy responding to all of them!
Is the Polzanze based on a real hotel? Or is it purely a construct of your imagination?
Oh yes, I stayed in the most heavenly hotel in Devon called Endsleigh, owned by Olga Polizzi, who has such flair and good taste, there is nothing about that place which I would change. It’s perfect. I hope to have channeled all that is special about Endsleigh into the Polzanze. Although, I might add that Endsleigh is deep in the countryside and not by the sea, so it’s not exactly the same, just inspired by! Check out their website and if you get the chance, please go, it’s really unique!
What is the one message you would like readers to take away with them after finishing this book?
I think the message is the same in all my novels: that when life is boiled down to its bare essence, love is all that remains, and all that matters.