This is the third book by Santa Montefiore I’ve read, and she has so far failed to disappoint. Her books tend to have a glorious weaving of the past and the present, follow two primary characters, but always involve the ensemble too, with a mystery leading through them that bind the characters across time, and they’re written so approachably you don’t feel overwhelmed by the complexity of her worlds (by that I mean if you’ve ever read a Jodi Picoult, another author I’ve read and loved recently, you’ll know what I mean).
The Italian Matchmaker centres around Luca, a bitter ladies man, recently divorced who takes a break at his parents palazzo in Italy and is pining two women. Freya (not his ex-wife), the one woman he believed was his One, and Cosima, a local Italian “widow” permanently in black, who three years before lost her son Francesco in a drowning accident, and who makes it clear she is not interested in talking to him in the slightest. The problem is Luca sees Francesco around whenever Cosima is near, and Cosima seemingly ignores the boy, and the realisation of this comes when Cosima tries to drown herself, and Francesco begs Luca for help.
The Italian Matchmaker is a little different from the other two books I read (The French Gardener and The Secret Hours) in the sense that there is not a clear line between the past and present, that is the chapters are not set in different eras. The mystery comes in the guise of the spirits that are spoken of by the locals, but also reveals that Luca used to see them as a boy until he was forced to suppress them by his mother’s threat to send him to the madhouse. As the story progresses, and Luca reveals to Cosima how he’s been seeing Francesco, and Cosima begging for it to be true, the two begin to fall in love, but her jealous cousin Rosa, who is married but planted her firm eye on Luca the moment she saw him, just waits for the moment when she can attempt to split them up.
The tales also centres on Luca’s parents’ palazzo, which has a bloody history of murder and murderous revenge, tied to Cosima’s aunt Alba, who once loved an Englishman - incidentally an Englishman that Luca knows back home – but could not stay in England with him, and returned to Italy and eventually married the love of her life. It was her mother who was murdered by her lover, the marchese, who in turn was murdered in revenge, and the palazzo houses a folly which was built as a love nest for Alba’s mother by the marchese, and which seems to be now haunted by a spirit or a trespasser.
Luca is a handsome rogue, irritatingly bitter at the start as a rich, ex-City banker, who doesn’t know what he really wants in life, but who is caught off-guard by the aloof and disinterested Cosima – he’s never experienced a woman who rebuffed him before. Cosima is living a tragedy, unwilling to allow herself to move on from her son’s death, as though his father was married and rejected her bitterly, her son was everything she loved in life. Luca, having saved her life against her will, begins to intrigue her after she hears about the boy he spoke of. Though never having known Francesco, or spoken to him in his spirit form, Luca becomes inextricably tied to him, and the boy spirit’s behaviour evolves from forlorn to mischievous along the journey of Luca and Cosima’s developing love. Francesco knowns he is being held from rising to the light by the weight of his mother’s grief and fear of abandoning him again, as heavily as she is being held from her own happiness by the same. The little Italian Matchmaker sends a message to his mother the only way he knows how, somehow knowing these two are meant to be.
As with her other books there is a wonderful cast of supporting characters. The professor and Ma being a fun duo – the former taking much delight in the beautiful Rosa while Ma berates him for being a silly old man pining after what he can’t have. Rosa being the devoted wife of a local policeman on one hand, and being in desperate need of being showered with diamonds and expensive goods on the other gives her a jealous but ultimately adventurous streak, resulting in her being hot on the heels of the intruder up at the folly. Luca’s mother loves company, even if that company is enjoying sponging off her generosity like the irritating couple Dizzy and Maxwell who even Rosina ends up wishing were gone. Luckily the arrival of Luca’s two girls and their beautiful Aussie nanny stirs Maxwell up so much Dizzy takes the initiative to get him the hell out of there before he tosses his married life away for a fling. All of this creates a great mixture of emotional highs and lows, and a great sweeping story I’ve come to expect from the author.