At last, the final book of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge, and also the last book in All Virago (and Persephone) all August, and yes, I do know it’s after the end of 20Books and after the end of August, but as I explained last time, it couldn’t come to the Iris Murdoch conference with me in the end so had to be finished when I got back. A really good read, though, and it’s always lovely to read a book set somewhere you know, in this case the town of Cadenabbia on Lake Como in Northern Italy – we had a holiday there in 2009 and I include some photos to illustrate the review.

Gladys Huntingdon – “Madame Solario”

(21 January 2017 – birthday present from Ali)

A pretty long book, set mostly in Cadenabbia and the associated small towns and villas dotted around Lake Como. Like a two-week holiday, we get sucked into the loves and lives of the exclusive set at the hotel, noticing who is after whom, who arrives on the boat and who leaves. Cadenabbia is a small community of hotels and you can see who’s coming from a mile off, but you can also walk up into the forests above the hotels and get some peace and quiet.

cadenabbia madame solario

We see everything first through young Englishman Bernard Middleton’s eyes – he becomes popular with the young set but is seen as, variously, someone who needs to be looked after and a mere child by some of the older men who have been through war, etc. The middle section of the book, which does go quite slowly, is from the viewpoint of the mysterious, beautiful Madame Solario and her brother, returned suddenly from exile after a family scandal, although it’s noteworthy that we never enter into the interior life of Natalia, viewing her always from the outside as a sort of screen onto which others’ desires are projected. Then the rather languorous action suddenly springs into life again with the third section, again with Bernard.

There’s acute social observation in this book, published anonymously post-World War Two but set in 1906, and also “acute observation” of the guests, by the guests – really, nothing gets past anyone and gossip spreads like wildfire among the multiple social groupings and nationalities:

In that forcing-house for situations everything was noticed, and conjecture was lush.

Of course, this might just save someone’s bacon in the end; you never know.

The narrative is punctuated by picnics, some in the Villa Carlotta’s beautiful grounds:

Villa Carlotta, Cadenabbia

Villa Carlotta, Cadenabbia

and other events at the Villa d’Este (still a location for social whirls), including dances and balls. There are often dangerous undercurrents flowing and social or financial ruin, amusing or otherwise, always seems close at hand. Middleton is a dear and his best moments are when he is as intimate as he ever is with his Madame Solario, observing her cushion case and her many hats and accoutrements. Should Bernard heed the warnings and stay with “his own”?

Perhaps I have read too much Iris Murdoch, but I picked up on the hints of the shocking denouement early on, although you have to search for it carefully amidst the chaos of the later scenes. An intriguing book, quite a long read, but a good one.


This was part of my All Virago (and Persephone) / All August challenge, but most importantly, Book 20 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge. All done, only a few days late!