"Montefiore's well-crafted, evocative novel is instantly sensual and welcoming. When Miranda Claybourne's seven-year-old is expelled from school, the stylish Londoner, magazine writer and mother of two, ditches her posh Notting Hill digs for the idylls of a country estate. But her simple-life fantasies soon fail. Her husband's preoccupied with his job and his mistress; the kids lash out at each other while Gus, the elder, terrorizes both farm animals and his new classmates. Enter Jean-Paul, a handsome, mysterious Frenchman with an offer to tend her woefully neglected gardens. Cleaning out the estate's rundown cottage for Jean-Paul, she discovers the secret journals of the previous lady of the house a brilliant gardener, Ava Lightly, and her love affair. As if by magic, Miranda's garden begins to thrive and she owes it all to Jean-Paul, with whom she thinks she's falling in love. The drama of the journals distract from her own failing marriage, and Miranda delights in the idea that her life is running parallel to Ava's it's a lovely coincidence, until she stops to consider exactly what may have drawn Jean-Paul into her garden. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Wise and winsome, poignant and powerfully moving, "The French Gardener" combines the savvy of contemporary women's fiction with an old fashioned sensibility steeped in the importance of family and the magical power of love.
This reading group guide for
The French Gardener includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A. 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.
Questions for Discussion
1. Gus seems to act out violently as a result of his parents' inattentiveness. Do you think his sins are ultimately forgivable, or should he be held responsible to some degree?
2. At first, "the word 'community' made [Miranda's] stomach churn" (page 20). By the end of the year, she has embraced the country and left London behind. What do you think accounts for Miranda's change in attitude about Hartington? How do her new relationships compare to her old ones?
3. Infidelity played a part in the Lightly marriage and in the Claybourne marriage. One affair was revealed, while the other remained secret. What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of each situation? How can keeping an affair a secret protect a marriage? How can having everything out in the open allow a relationship to grow and mend?
4. Montefiore describes the setting of the novel beautifully. Nearly every chapter comes alive with details of the characters' surroundings. Which images are most memorable for you? Can you picture any of the gardens or buildings described?
5. How do your feelings about Ava's affair differ from your feelings about David's? Is all infidelity equally condemnable? How does the way in which Montefiore wrote the novel affect your opinions about the injured parties in each affair? Can you be sympathetic to both Ava and Philip? Can you find any sympathy for David? How did Jean-Paul's friendship with Miranda help him contextualize how his affair with Ava must have affected Philip (page 333)?
6. Ava thinks about having "a child to stand between her and the door to remind her where her place [is]" (page 243). Do you think having a baby is an effective way of maintaining connection to a mate? Or is this a selfish decision on Ava's part? Why do you think the pregnancy effectively kept Ava's marriage going, despite its being Jean-Paul's child?
7. Henri says, "Relationships work better when the air is able to circulate between two people" (page 272). Have you experienced this idea playing out in your own life? Can independence and time apart help strengthen a relationship, or drive people apart?
8. Jean-Paul and Ava's love story exists in so many forms -- in Ava's scrapbook, in the novel Miranda writes, and in the novel we have just read. In what ways is their story classic and ripe for retelling and reworking?
9. When Blythe visits Miranda's new country home she discovers that, "the balance of power [in their friendship] had shifted, leaving her at a disadvantage" (page 305). Many of the female friendships in the book are marred by unhealthy power dynamics and competition. What do Cate and Blythe have in common? Which friendships seem mutually supportive? Which seem to be suffering and why?
10. While Ava was great at entertaining a crowd, she very much appreciated time alone "to relax and not have to make an effort" (page 113). How did this preference affect her relationships? Does socializing exhaust or exhilarate you? Does solitude relax you or make you lonely?
11. Henrietta states: "But all the good I have to give is turning sour in my belly. If I don't find someone soon I'll ferment into vinegar and won't be of any worth to anyone" (page 130). In what ways can the lack of an outlet for romantic love "ferment" a person? How does Jean-Paul's single status differ from Henrietta's? Is it, in fact, better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?
12. When Jean-Paul meets Miranda and her family he thinks, "I cannot bring the love back but I can create new love. That is how I will remember her" (page 137). In what other ways do both Ava and Jean-Paul keep the memory of each other alive? Do you think their actions are healthy responses to the loss of love? Or has it proven harmful for them to keep the past alive in their hearts?
13. Toddy tells Ava that, "In the old days we died at thirty. Now we live so long it's like two lifetimes. I think one should be able to call it quits halfway through and enjoy another marriage when it starts to grow humdrum" (page 166). Do you support Toddy's claim and think that longer life expectancy contributes to more failed marriages? What other developments in our modern world may be making second and third marriages more and more commonplace?
14. How do you feel about Miranda's decision to forgive David and move forward in their marriage? Has he proven himself to be a changed man?
15. What are your hopes for Jean-Paul's future relationship with Peach? Do you think their mutual affection for Ava will bond them? What struggles do adult children face when meeting their biological parents for the first time?
Enhance Your Book Club
Ava and Jean-Paul periodically compare their relationship to ephemeral phenomena in nature: a rainbow, a sunset. How would you describe some of the relationships in your life using nature as a metaphor? Have you planted strong roots? Is your family tree a weeping willow, an oak tree with a tire swing, or maybe a crab apple tree?
Jean-Paul loves to paint, and it is one of the first things that bonds him to Ava. Go through the pages of this novel and attempt to re-create one of the scenes in any artistic medium you're comfortable with; paint, markers, computer, collage.
The cottage garden becomes Ava and Jean-Paul's special place, something they built together. Create a mini garden for your book group with an indoor herb garden. Then, two or three book group meetings from now, when the herbs are ready for picking, make like Mrs. Underwood and whip something up for the group. Go to http://www.doityourself.com/stry/indoorherbgarden for instructions.
Cate's bakery acts as the town center of Hartington. Why not hold your book club meeting in a local establishment that brings people together in your community? Better yet, channel Ava and Jean-Paul and hold the meeting outdoors.
A Conversation with Santa Montefiore
Why did you decide to organize the novel by season? How do you think this structure will affect the reading of the book? What do you think the passing of the seasons meant to your characters?
The idea for this book came to me watching my children thriving in my parents' garden on the farm where I grew up in Hampshire. I have always adored the countryside, but more than that I need it spiritually. Being essentially London children they began to plant vegetables and trees and watch them grow. They became more independent, more imaginative and surprisingly creative. I feel that all children should have access to such simple pleasures in a world where computer games and television dominate so many households.
I decided to divide the book into seasons because of the garden theme, of course -- I wanted a whole year to watch Jean-Paul's garden grow -- but also to reinforce the main theme of regeneration. The seasons return again year after year, Ava hands her knowledge and love of the garden to Jean-Paul, who then passes them on to Miranda and her children, who will pass them on to their own children one day. My father grew up in the same house that I grew up in, where we now have a cottage. My children build camps in the same parts of the garden and woods and climb the same tree house that my father and I once climbed. Ava's love is not dead but will grow season after season in the garden she created.
Can you give us some more insight into the poetic phrases that begin each chapter? How did you decide on these? How do you hope they set the tone for what follows in the chapter?
Some of these are my own observations, others were given to me by Georgia Langton, a friend of my mother's who's a talented gardener. These are Ava's words, because, on a deeper level, Ava's spirit is still there in the garden -- like nature we don't die but shed our bodies like leaves and flower again in spirit. Ava's very much present, enjoying all the beauty of nature.
Would you give us some more background regarding the poem in the epilogue? Who do you see as a speaker? Who is the audience?
I'm glad you asked this question! In my youth I wanted to be a singer/songwriter. These are the words of a song I wrote aged twenty-two, when a dear friend of mine was killed in a canoeing accident. It has a chorus, but it wasn't appropriate for the book. Like the phrases at the top of each chapter, these are Ava's words from her spirit. They're to Jean-Paul and they're to my readers.
You mention Georgia Langton in Dorset in your acknowledgments as inspiration, especially with regards to her garden. In what other ways is Georgia's spirit written into the book? Are any characters based on her? Are images of her garden available anywhere online?
Georgia is a very exceptional, beautiful, talented woman. She embodies the best of British eccentricity in the most glorious way. I knew her when I was a child, so I went to see her while researching the book. She was a great inspiration to me and I did think of her as I created Ava. I've never seen anyone wear dungarees with such style. Fortunately for her, I don't know her well enough to base a character entirely on her, but I was inspired by her unconventional beauty, her animation, enthusiasm, joy and love. I haven't looked for her online but she is a professional garden designer!
Readers are always interested in which character an author aligns herself with. Is Miranda's job as a writer and aspirations as a novelist a hint? Do you find it easiest to write about characters with whom you relate or ones you feel distant from?
Oddly enough, I didn't identify at all with Miranda. I'm a country girl through and through! I identified with Ava a little, but I imagine some of me went into both. I write from my heart without really intellectualizing things a great deal. I write what feels right. I find it just as easy to write about someone like me as someone very unlike me -- sometimes the characters who are least like me are the most fun! I can be anyone I want to be and, for the duration of the book, live another life entirely!
Infidelity abounds in the lives of the various characters in The French Gardener. Do you hope that readers will remain loyal to certain characters despite their flawed behavior? How do you see the affairs as differing from one another? Is one more forgivable than the next?
To be honest, I don't think of my reader at all while writing my books. I embark on an adventure for my own pleasure and work things out as I go along. I think infidelity is wrong only if it hurts other people. Many marriages are open and thrive on that type of freedom. So I don't judge other people.
However, the characters I write about are there to be scrutinized. Ava falls in love with another man, proving that it is possible to love more than one man at the same time, but ultimately she remains loyal to her husband. She sacrifices her own heart for her children, which is very admirable. I receive so many letters and e-mails from fans telling me of their secret affairs and loves that I realize this sort of sacrifice is more common than I thought. David's affair is based on vanity and a yearning for excitement. There's nothing very admirable about that, but it is very human. I think forgiveness is a very high quality, and I like to feel that Miranda and David will heal and grow to enjoy a strong and lasting marriage. No one is perfect, and I like my characters to be flawed because I want to watch them grow throughout the course of the novel.
How do you hope readers will understand the "magic" of the garden at Hartington? Do you believe in real magic, or are you using the word figuratively? Can love make ordinary things and places magical?
I really do believe in the magic of love and in the magic of nature. Ava and Jean-Paul pour all their love into the garden and create something magical. Jean-Paul teaches Miranda and her children to love nature and they flourish. Love makes ordinary things special -- it's all about perception and focus. The old cliché that love can change the world is the truest thing ever said! The only trouble with most of us is that we love conditionally. True love is unconditional.
In your biography on your website you say, "However much we try, time cannot be reversed. It changes us and those we were once close to." Do you consider this to be a universal truth? How does this notion affect Jean-Paul and Ava? What can happen if we don't allow time to change us and others?
In my experience time does change us. That's because life molds us. It either makes us happy, giving, generous and wise or embittered, regretful, jealous and unhappy. In the case of Jean-Paul and Ava, I really wanted them to get back together in the end, but I didn't think it realistic. Their affair belongs in the past, when they shared that magical time in those beautiful gardens, when they were both young. I'm not so sure that they would have recaptured that magic so many years later. Like an enchanted holiday, you return the year later to relive it again and find you can't; the magic just isn't there. The place is the same, the people the same, but something is missing. I think it's often like that with love. I'm not saying that Jean-Paul's love has diminished in any way, but he's changed; and, had she not died, Ava would be different, too -- in ways too subtle to describe. Ava would want Jean- Paul to remember her as she was when she was at her most radiant. On another level, I don't always like to tie up my endings with neat little bows. This ending, though perhaps not as Hollywood would write it, gives my reader something to think about when he reaches the end of the book. And there's always Peach....
Miranda seems to be a city girl but finds her heart in the country. Where do you feel most at home?
I adore my London life. I love my friends, the restaurants, shops, theaters and the social side of the city. But I need to return every weekend to the country where I see only my family. I feel at peace in the woods and gardens of my home, where we have a cottage, and fill up spiritually.