The French Gardener

The French Gardener

by Santa Montefiore

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Overview

A neglected garden. A cottage that holds a secret. A mysterious and handsome Frenchman. Prepare to be “spellbound by the sheer charm” (Daily Express, UK) of Santa Montefiore’s tender and powerful novel about passion, loss, and the healing power of love.

It begins as Miranda and David Claybourne move into a country house with a once-beautiful garden. But reality turns out to be very different from their dream. Soon the latent unhappiness in the family begins to come to the surface, isolating each family member in a bubble of resentment and loneliness.

Then an enigmatic Frenchman arrives on their doorstep. With the wisdom of nature, he slowly begins to heal the past and the present. But who is he? When Miranda reads about his past in a diary she finds in the cottage by the garden, the whole family learns that a garden, like love itself, can restore the human spirit, not just season after season, but generation after generation.

Wise and winsome, poignant and powerfully moving, The French Gardener is a contemporary story told with an old-fashioned sensibility steeped in the importance of family and the magical power of love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416543749
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 06/02/2009
Edition description: Original
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 163,223
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Santa Montefiore’s books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages and have sold more than six million copies in England and Europe. She is married to writer Simon Sebag Montefiore. They live with their two children, Lily and Sasha, in London. Visit her at SantaMontefioreauthor.com.

Read an Excerpt

I

The yellow leaves of the weeping willow in autumn

Hartington House, Dorset October 2005

Gus crept up to his mother's study door and put his ear to the crack. He inhaled the familiar smell of Marlboro Lites and felt his frustration mount at the sound of her husky voice speaking on the telephone. He knew she was talking to his teacher, Mr. Marlow. He assumed, correctly, that she wasn't on his side. Gus was a problem no one wanted to take the trouble to solve. "I don't believe it!" she exclaimed. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Marlow. It won't happen again. It really won't. His father will be down tonight from London. I'll make sure he talks to him...You're right, it's absolutely not on to bite another child...I'll find him and send him straight back to school." Then her tone softened and Gus heard her chair scrape across the wooden floorboards as she stood up. "I know he can be a bit aggressive, but we only moved from London a couple of months ago. It's been difficult for him. He's left all his friends behind. He's only seven. He'll settle in. Just give him time, Mr. Marlow? Please. He's a good boy, really."

Gus didn't hang around to hear more. He tiptoed back down the corridor and out the garden door onto the terrace. The lawn was a rich, wet green, sparkling in the pale morning light. He took a deep breath and watched mist rise into the air. He shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and shivered. He'd left his coat at school. Swallowing his resentment, he wandered across the terrace and up the thyme walk lined with shaggy round topiary balls. His shoulders hunched, his feet kicking out in front of him, his eyes searched for some small creature upon which to vent his anger.

At the end of the thyme walk was a field full of sheep belonging to their neighbor Jeremy Fitzherbert. Among the sheep was a disheveled old donkey called Charlie. Gus enjoyed nothing more than bullying the beast, chasing him around the field with a stick until his braying grew hoarse and desperate. He climbed the fence. Sensing danger, Charlie pricked his ears. He spotted the little boy jumping down and his eyes widened with fear. He stood frozen to the ground, nostrils flaring, heart turning over like a rusty engine.

Gus felt a jolt of excitement. He forgot about biting Adam Hudson in the playground, about running out of the school gates and up the High Street, about his mother's angry voice and his own clawing sense of isolation. He forgot about everything except the sudden rush of blood as he set off in pursuit of the donkey.

"You a scaredy cat?" he hissed as he approached the terrified animal. "Whoooa!" He lunged at him, delighting in the clumsy way the donkey stumbled back before cantering stiffly off towards the woods at the top of the field, braying in panic.What a shame he hadn't brought the stick. It was more fun when he hit him.

Bored of that game, Gus continued into the woods, leaving Charlie trembling in the corner of the field, surrounded by sheep. The ground was soggy, strewn with twigs and brown leaves amongst which a shiny pheasant scraped the earth for food. The sun shone weakly through the leaves, illuminating the spiders' webs that adorned the surrounding shrubbery with lace. Gus picked up a twig and began to swipe the webs, squashing the fleeing spiders under foot. The pleasure was fleeting, and he was left with the emptiness of believing, albeit subconsciously, that he was of no value to anyone.

Miranda Claybourne put down the telephone and remained at the window, staring out over the orchard. The ground was littered with apples and the last of the plums. She had sensed her son's presence at the door, but now he had gone. Of all the days Gus had to choose to play truant, he had chosen Deadline Day. She stubbed out her cigarette, reassuring herself that a lapse in her struggle to quit was absolutely okay; three puffs hardly counted. She didn't have time to go looking for him, and anyway, she wouldn't know where to start, the grounds were so large and, she observed with a sinking feeling, desperately overgrown and wet. The thought of tramping about in gumboots was intolerable for a city girl used to Jimmy Choos and concrete. On top of everything she had her monthly column for Red to finish. So far, the only advantage of living in the country was not having to brush her hair and apply makeup for the school run. Gus and his five-year-old sister, Storm, cycled up the drive every morning, leaving their bikes by the gate to take the school bus that conveniently stopped for them at eight. In London she had had to get up early in order to make herself presentable to the other mums in four-by-fours and oversized sunglasses who carried off a seemingly effortless glamour in Gucci, their smooth hair colored and cut to perfection at Richard Ward. In Hartington she imagined that barely anyone would have heard of Gucci or Richard Ward, which had seemed charmingly quaint on arrival, but was now simply quaint. She complained wittily in her column, which chronicled her struggle to adapt to country life, and turned her resentment into hilarity. Along with the wet, dreary weather, somehow wetter and drearier in the countryside than in London, the quaintness of Hartington was almost intolerable. There was nothing to do but laugh.

Unlike her husband, Miranda hadn't wanted to move out of London. The very thought of being farther than a whiff of perfume from Harvey Nichols made her break into a cold sweat. Eating at the local pub rather than at the Ivy or Le Caprice was almost enough to confine her permanently to her own kitchen table. How she missed her Pilates classes in Notting Hill, lunches at the Wolseley with her girlfriends, stopping in at Ralph Lauren for a little self-indulgence before returning home. But they had had no choice. Gus had been kicked out of school for being aggressive, and moving him to a quiet country school seemed the sensible option. He had a whole year to go before they could pack him off to boarding school where the problem of Gus would be taken out of their hands. For Miranda and David Claybourne, one year of Gus's bad behavior was an incredibly long time.

Oh God, what am I going to do? I really don't have time for this, she muttered to herself, throwing her cigarette into the wastepaper bin and covering it with a few scrunched-up pieces of newspaper so she wouldn't be reminded of her lack of willpower. She wished she had hired another nanny instead of insisting she do it all single-handedly.That was the trouble with being a working mother: the guilt. It went in tandem with exhaustion, trying to be everything to everyone while retaining a little for oneself. David had suggested she hire a cook and a gardener, that way she'd have more time to write. Living in the country wasn't like London where one could order a home delivery of sushi or a Chinese take-away from Mr.Wing; here she had to get in her car and go into town, which required planning. She didn't have time to plan meals. The only good thing was Mr. Tit the milkman who arrived every morning with the papers and milk in his white van marked with the license plate: COW 1. He made her laugh during the bleakest hour of the day, when it was still dark and damp outside and she was struggling to get the children ready for school. As for the garden, it was a proper garden, not a patio with a few potted plants, but acres and acres of land. It wasn't so easy to find help in the country. London was full of foreigners begging for work; in Dorset there didn't seem to be any foreigners at all. It was all so alien and unnerving. She didn't belong. David had fallen in love with the house on sight because it appealed to his aspirations of grandeur. She had accepted it halfheartedly, longing for Notting Hill and asphalt, slightly guilty for not appreciating such a big house in so idyllic a setting. But what on earth was one to do in the countryside?

As a freelance journalist she was always under pressure. They didn't need the money: David worked in the City and earned more than most people could spend in a lifetime, but writing was in her blood and she couldn't have stopped even if she had wanted to. She dreamed of one day writing a novel, a great big love story like Anna Karenina or Gone with the Wind. However, she had yet to come up with a good plot. Until she did, she was stuck with writing articles for magazines and newspapers, which at least fulfilled her need to express herself and gave her a vital foothold in London. Miranda busied herself at her computer so she didn't have to listen to the small voice of despair whispering inside her head. She put off her chores, hoping they'd go away, that David would admit it had all been a terrible mistake and take them back to where they belonged. After all, the countryside hadn't changed Gus. But David's enjoyment of the country rested on the fact that he could return to the city on Sunday and swank about having spent the weekend at his country estate. She was stuck down here indefinitely.

She considered her husband: handsome, debonair David Claybourne. Always in control, always strong and capable, cruising effortlessly through life as if he'd done it all before, loads of times. Now that they had moved she rarely saw him. At first he had returned home on Thursdays, staying until Sunday night. Now he arrived late on Friday and left after lunch on Sunday. He was tired,wanting to spend the weekend sitting in front of the television watching golf. If she didn't know him so well she would suspect he was having an affair — but David was much too concerned about what other people thought to stray.

She returned to her desk and dialed her husband's number at Goldman Sachs. Apart from wanting to share her anxiety about Gus, she just wanted to hear his voice. "Darling, it's me," she said when he picked up the telephone.

"Now, what's going on down there, sweetheart? Everything all right?" He sounded buoyant. She was immediately reassured.

"It's Gus, he's run off."

David heaved an impatient sigh. "Not again!" She suddenly felt bad for having ruined his day.

"You're going to have to give him a good talking to tonight," she said. "He'll listen to you."

"A good hiding is what he deserves."

"It's against the law.You can tell that kind of law was made by people with no children."

"Did you speak to Mr. Marlow?"

"Yes. He's not very happy. God forbid Gus gets kicked out of this school, too!" She began to toy with a pencil.

"He won't. They're more tolerant in the country. Besides, he'll grow out of it. He's just adjusting to his new surroundings."

"I hope you're right."

"You sound down, darling."

"I'm just really up against it. I've got to finish my column and I can't get to my desk I've got so many domestic chores to see to. Now Gus has run off, I won't have time to write. I'm tearing my hair out!"

"And such pretty hair!" he quipped. "Look, if you took the trouble to hire help you'd have time for the important things." He was baffled by his wife's uncharacteristic ineptitude. She had commanded the builders for eight months like a formidable colonel, but recently she had lost momentum. "You should have listened to me and hired a nanny. Jayne might have come with us had we made her an offer she couldn't refuse.Your dreams of being the domestic goddess haven't quite materialized, have they? We were fools to let her go. She was the only one Gus responded to. You're the mistress of an estate now, Miranda. Get organized down there, for God's sake, before you drive us both mad." David clearly believed their son's problems were his wife's responsibility.

"He'll come back when he's hungry," she retorted casually, hurt that he was blaming her once again. "Then I'll send him back to school." She put down the telephone and returned to her desk, glancing bleakly at the ironic title of her column: "My Bucolic Dream."

Gus sat under a tree and felt his stomach rumble. He wanted to go home and sit by the fire in the playroom and watch Lord of the Rings on DVD. He longed for Jayne's cottage pie and apple crumble with custard. Slowly his anger ebbed away, cooled by the damp wind that now penetrated his bones. He rubbed his hands together and blew hot air into them. Even if he had had the vocabulary he wouldn't have been able to explain his actions, even to himself. He didn't know why he was poisoned with frustration and anger. He felt rejected. Lashing out made him feel better. Suddenly a large bubble expanded in his belly, rose up his windpipe and escaped his throat in a large, uncontrollable sob. His tears shocked and appalled him but he was unable to stop.

"You all right, lad?" Gus swiveled around, swallowing his weeping with a gulp. He hadn't heard the man approach. Beside him panted two black sheepdogs. "You're David Claybourne's boy, aren't you?" said Jeremy Fitzherbert. Gus nodded. Jeremy introduced himself and his thin, weathered face creased into a smile. One of the dogs leaned against his brown corduroy trousers which were tucked into green Wellington boots. A tweed cap covered thinning brown hair. His eyes were small and bright and very blue. He patted the dog's head with one gloved hand, a long stick in the other. The very stick Gus had used to torment the donkey. "Shouldn't you be at school? Come on, let me take you home."

Gus reluctantly got to his feet. One of the dogs made a rush for him. Gus recoiled. "Oh, it's a wanting-to-jump-up dog!" said Jeremy with a chuckle. "Don't worry, he doesn't bite. The thin one's Mr. Ben, the fat one's Wolfgang." Jeremy patted Mr. Ben fondly. Gus wiped his face with his sleeve and followed Jeremy down the path.

The sheep were gathered into a tight formation, ready to be shepherded. Charlie the donkey remained in the far corner of the field, watching them warily. "Charlie!" Jeremy called, delving into his pocket for a carrot. "Come on, old boy!" Charlie didn't move."What's up with him?" Jeremy muttered to himself. Gus dropped his eyes and shoved his hands into his pockets. "Donkeys." Jeremy sighed, shaking his head. "I'll go and take a look at him later. He's an old codger. You know he's over ninety?"

"Really," Gus replied, looking up from beneath his dark fringe. Jeremy noticed something hard in those pale blue eyes and frowned. He didn't know how to talk to someone Gus's age, so he strode on across the field and up the thyme walk without uttering another word. Gus trudged silently behind him, wondering how he was going to get that stick back.

Once at the garden door Gus slunk in, tossing Jeremy a hasty look, more of dismissal than of gratitude. "Is your mother in? I'd like to see her," said Jeremy, lingering on the terrace.

Gus hesitated and bit his lip. He seemed to gather himself before he was able to contemplate facing his mother. "Muum!" he shouted at last.

Miranda's hands froze over the keys of her laptop at the sound of her son's voice. She felt a rush of relief. She hurried into the hall to find Gus, hands in pockets, feet shuffling, face grubby with mud and tears. Her heart buckled. "Darling, I've been so worried. Where have you been?" She kneeled to pull him into her arms but he stiffened. He was as cold as a corpse. "You can't just run off like that. It's not safe." Then she noticed Jeremy hovering at the door. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see you," she said, getting up.

"I'm Jeremy Fitzherbert, your neighbor." He took off his glove to shake her hand. "We've waved at each other from a distance but never been properly introduced."

"Oh yes, you've met my husband, David." His hand was rough and warm. He noticed her manicured nails and the large sapphire and diamond ring on the third finger of her left hand. She smelled of lime. "I'm Miranda. Thank you for bringing him home. I've been out of my mind worrying about him."

"He was in the woods," said Jeremy. "No harm can come to him there, I assure you. Unless he gets caught in a fox trap."

"Fox trap?" Her eyes widened.

Jeremy shrugged. "They eat my chickens. Even go for the odd sheep if they're feeling particularly adventurous. I think Gus is far too astute to wind up in one of those." Miranda turned to her son, but he had disappeared.

"I'm used to London parks, not the countryside. This is all rather new to me," she said, an edge to her voice. Jeremy took in the long brown hair tied into a ponytail and the pale blue eyes, made of the same hard crystal as her son's. She was a beautiful woman with high, angular cheekbones and a strong jaw, though rather too thin for his taste. "Do you have a wife, Mr. Fitzherbert?"

"Jeremy, please," he insisted with a grin. "No, I'm a poor bachelor. In fact, I'm a charity case, Miranda. Every kindhearted female I know is intent on finding me a bride, but who wants to be a farmer's wife these days?" He smiled diffidently, his eyes twinkling with humor.

"Oh, I'm sure there's someone out there for you. You've got plenty of time. No biological clock to push you into marriage before you're ready." She smiled. She didn't want to give him the impression that she was discontented. "The reason I ask whether you have a wife is that I'm looking for a cook. Oh, and a gardener. It's the sort of thing a woman might know. You don't happen to know anyone, do you? Or how I might go about it? You see, I'm extremely busy; I'm a writer. I just can't go scouring the countryside for help."

Jeremy nodded knowingly. She'd probably had an army of Filipinos in London. "The best thing to do is post a notice in Cate's Cake Shop in town. She's got a large clientele. Why don't you offer someone that cottage by the river? It's empty, isn't it?"

"That pile of rubble! I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to live there. It's a ruin."

Jeremy laughed. "Oh, it has a certain charm. It wouldn't take too much to resurrect it. If you offer the cottage you're more likely to find someone to work on the estate. I don't know of anyone locally. You'll have to bring someone in. A cottage is a good incentive."

"Perhaps you're right."

"I'll ask around."

"Thank you." She looked at him standing outside in the cold and rashly offered him a cup of coffee, regretting it even as she spoke.

"I've got to take a look at Charlie," he said, declining her offer.

"Charlie?"

"The donkey. A friendly animal. He's cowering in the corner of the field. Not like him at all. Hope the lad's okay. Found him crying in the woods. I have a horse, Whisper, if he'd like a ride sometime. Let me know. I'm in the book."

"Thank you," Miranda replied, closing the door behind him. She looked at her watch. What on earth was she going to give Gus for lunch?

She found her son sitting on the banquette in the kitchen, playing with his Game Boy. When she entered he glared at her sulkily. "Now, darling," she said, endeavoring to sound stern. "What's all this about biting another little boy at school? How do you think you're going to make friends if you bite them?"

"Don't want any friends," he replied, without taking his eyes off the game.

"Why did you bite him?"

"He started it."

"I don't care who started it. You can't go around bullying people. Do you want to be kicked out and go to boarding school early?"

"No," he replied hastily, looking up. He didn't want to go to boarding school at all. "Are you going to make me go back to school today?"

"No," she replied, reluctantly changing her mind. She didn't have the heart to send him back. "I've got to go into town and post a notice in the cake shop. You can hang out here, if you like. I'll put some fish cakes in the oven."

"Can I watch Lord of the Rings?" Gus had discarded his sulk like a coat that was no longer necessary.

"If you promise not to bully other children."

"I promise," he said lightly, climbing down from the bench.

Miranda gave him a hug. "I love you," she gushed, repeating the three words that always made up for the lack of time she gave her son. Gus didn't reply but hurried off to the playroom. Miranda went to telephone the school to inform them that Gus had been found but wouldn't be returning on account of a stomachache and to arrange for an older child to look out for Storm on the school bus. She would send Gus to meet her at the end of the lane. It was the least he could do.

Jeremy whistled for his dogs and walked back to the field. Charlie was still standing in the corner. "Come on, old boy," he said, taking off his glove and pulling out the carrot. He liked to feel that velvet muzzle near to his skin. It took a few moments for the donkey to realize that Jeremy was alone. When he did he tossed his head and galloped across the field. He snorted at Jeremy and nuzzled his soft nose into his hand, taking the carrot carefully so as not to bite his master's fingers. Jeremy rubbed the short fur between the animal's eyes and smiled at him affectionately. "What's the matter with you, Charlie? Why were you standing over there in the corner? It's not like you to decline the offer of a carrot." Jeremy set off up the field towards the woods. Charlie followed. He wanted more than anything to go with him, to the safety of Manor Farm where he used to live with Whisper. But Jeremy simply patted him again and closed the gate behind him, leaving Charlie at the mercy of the horrid little boy who chased him with a stick. Copyright © 2008 by Santa Montefiore

Reading Group Guide

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.

Introduction

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 yoube 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.

Santa Montefiore's novels have been translated into twenty languages and have sold more than three million copies in England and Europe. She studied Spanish and Italian at Exeter University. She lives in London with her husband, historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore, and their two children.

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French Gardener 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 57 reviews.
CountryWomanIL More than 1 year ago
I am a gardener, myself, so I was interested immediately in the story by Santa Montefiore. I am also a traveller and am going to Paris, France for the first time this June. The story of a French gardener, therefore, grabbed my attention and I couldn't wait to delve into this book. I loved the manner in which the author presented the lives of the characters. The people presented were real, loving, learning and making mistakes along the path of their lives. I also appreciated the fact that the story didn't contain violence or darkness. The descriptions of the gardens created within the story made me want to venture forth into them to explore the many varieties described therein. For a gardener, this was sheer delight. The joy the main characters took in creating and maintaining these gardens was so meaningful to me as a reader. I enjoyed, also, the inclusion by the author of the way in which her main character, the French gardener treated both children and animals. The care and kind words offered throughout the book toward both was a welcome relief to read about. One could feel the tenderness owed to both through the eyes of the main character. It was so refreshing to read about characters who held high esteem for values and morals, even though the difficulties of being human were reflected on every page. I flew through this novel and am now looking forward to reading more by this wonderful author.
Sarah0_0 More than 1 year ago
Loved this story! Entertaining and intelligently written. It is a light read and I recommend it for vacation readers. I didn't like the main characters husband and I wish the author had made some different decisions in regards to the outcome, but it was heartwarming.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Freelance journalist Miranda and her spouse David accompanied by their children move from London to Gloucestershire in Dorset although he still works in the big city; she dreams of writing a novel without the city distractions. As David spends increasingly more time in London and away from their home Hartington House, Miranda and the kids struggle to adjust to rustic life; she misses all the glamour and glitter of London while the kids have no earthly idea how to play outdoors when they are used to monitors.------------------- Frenchman Jean-Paul arrives searching for his lost love Ava Lightly whose family once resided in the home that David and Miranda bought. He brings with him a simpler lifestyle especially his love of gardens as he tells them how his Ava loved the feel of rich earth; his cheery optimism is infectious as the kids and Miranda enjoy their time with him as if he a kindhearted Pied Piper. ----------------------- This is a well written profound tale in which the garden serves as a metaphor of life. The story line is divided into the four seasons with the garden different each time as is a person through the years. This story is poignant due to the wise aging title character who flashes back to the spring of his life so that the audience learns what happened to him and his Ava. Fans will appreciate Jean Paul's wisdom as it is never too late to hug a loved one even if the person you cherish has passed; the good memories provide strong mental hugs.------------ Harriet Klausner
RonnaL More than 1 year ago
THE FRENCH GARDENER by Santa Montefiore is a sensual, sophisticated, scrumptious love story around a beautiful estate garden and an enchanting French gardener. When a busy self absorbed family move to a country estate with a floundering garden, they hire a middle aged Frenchman to be their gardener. He proceeds to bring everyone and everything to life. The kids learn that the outdoors can bring hours of fun. The Mom learns that there is more to life than shopping and the computer. Unfortunately, the father is busy traveling back and forth from London and sharing his extra time with his mistress. While preparing the estate cottage for the gardener, the wife finds a diary from the previous owner who had made the gardens a sanctuary for her family with the help of a younger man from France. Yes, this turns out to be the same Frenchman but we get to enjoy a beautifully structured story of love, relationships, forgiveness and loyalty before this book ends all too soon for this reader.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What do you do when what you want most in the world can't be had no matter how or why? This story takes on the what ifs and magically transforms it to tangibility defined as the spectacular gardens described throughout the story. When unavailable love is manifested, it becomes spectacular. Ava and Philip Lightly left their lovely home after illness and age made it impossible to care for. Miranda and David Claybourne have purchased and retrofit/ redesigned and brought Harington House back up-to-date as a showpiece, but its soul is missing. Then Miranda hires the gardener, and the missing pieces begin to slide into place as not only the gardens come back to life, but the people are energized to fully become themselves. Jean-Paul was a young man at odds with his destiny as the sole heir of his family's winery, and his father sends him to live with and work with his friends for a year in hopes that being with the Lightlys might make him grow up. With the help of Ava, he does that, falling in love with her in the process. Many years later, Jean Paul, true to his promise returns to find Ava, and instead, rekindles the garden's magic and in doing so, rebuilds himself and the Claybourne's relationship as everyone allows the work of the garden/ers to bring their lives back to life. This was a marvelous romance in the genre of Rosemond Pilcher and Bridges if Madison County. Montefiore writes with a passion raraley seen, infusing her characters with a life rarely seen on the page. I am definatly finding more by this author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What can I say that the other reviews haven't already said? It is a wonderful story that will make you happy. I didn't want it to end.
2samba More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. I didn't want it to end. Looking for something to read along these lines. Can anyone suggest a book?
VirginiaGill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved the Gypsy Madonna and so was tickled pink to come across The French Gardener. The book is pure magic, it wafts off the pages and into your heart making your long to be able to touch each character, to soothe their hurts and dance in their joy. Definately worth the read.
dksthomson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In all of the years that I have been an avid reader, there was only one book that bewitched me, until I read The French Gardener. It's been days since I have finished The French Gardener and I can't quit thinking about the characters. I haven't even been able to start a new book, partly because I don't want any other story to take it's place, and partly because I believe any other story is going to pale in comparison. It's going to be a while before I "get over it" and that's fine with me :) This book unfolds so beautifully....Jean Paul and Ava will steal your heart away. Santa Montefiore draws you into the garden and the lives of each character in a soft, cozy & comfortable way...before you know it, she has woven a spell around you and you become part of the family. It's simply Pure Magic!!! ps...the other book that bewitched me was....The Thornbirds...many years ago ;)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be quite an enchanting piece of literature, something difficult to find these days! This author's writing style is about perfect...will read more of author's writing and highly recommend this one. She weaves a lovely tale.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Couldn't put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Will probably re-read it several times. The characters were well developed and likeable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the most enjoyable books I jave read in a long time!!!!!
MaggieSueMP More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was a good story, but it moved so very slowly that I skipped the whole middle portion of the book and picked up the story at the last few chapters.  No I wouldn't really recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good read. Will look for more books by this author
shell14 More than 1 year ago
Although this book jumped back and forth with the two families who had lived on the estate, I enjoyed the story and the two different takes on marriage problems.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
TillyJE More than 1 year ago
A wonderful story! It was so hard to put down. I am a gardener, so the details of the gardens and grounds was fascinating. I loved the little "sub-stories" too! book from the author. I can't wait to read another r
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
anita60 More than 1 year ago
This book was a delicious read from beginning to end. The characters felt real. The garden's development, growth and beauty were described through each season, and along with that gorgeous blooming, character relationships continually bloomed as well. The theme of the book is about personal growth, love and relationships and much like a garden, the book shows how relationships need to be nursed and cared for regularly, as a number of characters in this book came to find this out in sometimes painful ways. I was sad when I reached the ending of this book, however, I look forwarding to reading all of Montefiore's works. Give yourself a treat and enjoy this and let your mind travel through this beautiful English garden!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First book I read from this author. I found this story to take me away from my crazy world of hustle bustle. I didnt want to put it down. I luv gardens, so I felt the story line made me feel like I was there in the garden living the story. Look forward to reading more of your books
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book Santa is a great writer I was really drawn into the story I give this book five stars I bought a book for a friend