“The House by the Sea” focuses on two parallel stories, one set in Devon in the UK in 2009 and one set
in Italy which starts in 1966.
In 2009 readers follow Clementine whose stepmother, Marina, owns a hotel that was formerly a family stately home. Clementine’s father, Grey, and brother Jake assist in running the hotel, however, the hotel is in trouble. Marina experimented with an artist in residence the previous year, which seemed popular, so she’s trying it again. The previous artist isn’t available so she’s hired an Italian Argentine called Rafa, who is also a success, not only charming the elderly ladies who regularly stay at the hotel, but attracting Clementine. Clementine is temporarily a secretary at a local estate agents so she can earn enough money to travel again, having graduated and being utterly clueless as to what she wants to do other than not be an estate agent’s secretary. She blames Marina for her parents’ marriage breaking down and, even though she was only aged three at the time of their divorce, has borne a grudge against Marina ever since. This spoilt brat routine would be excusable in a teenager but grates in a young woman and makes it hard to empathise with her, especially when she refuses to take Joe’s calls so she can be with Rafa, then, after arguing with Rafa, moves in with Joe knowing that it’s the wrong move but being too proud to admit to a mistake. Clementine does have her epiphany but it comes late in the novel so spends most of it being an irritation.
Marina can’t bear the thought of losing her hotel as it a compensation for her childlessness (and having two stepchildren who don’t love her) and is devastated when a businessman with a reputation for buying up struggling hotels books a stay. There’s also a box hidden in the back of the wardrobe, but readers aren’t allowed to see the contents (another irritation).
Rafa, the artist, it seems, has a mission of his own. One of the chambermaids discovers he has some letters in his possession in a language she can’t read but the letters bear the name Costanza.
Costanza also happens to be the name of Floriana’s best friend in Italy in 1966. Floriana’s father is an alcoholic and her mother has run off with a tomato seller at the local market, taking Floriana’s younger brother and leaving her ten year old daughter to fend for herself. Costanza is the daughter of a Count and the Countess tolerates the friendship with Floriana but is determined that her daughter will circulate and marry within her own class. Floriana escapes when she can to gaze through a weakness in the wall at a substantial villa owned by the wealthy Bonfanti family, headed by Beppe Bonfanti. One day Floriana’s spotted by Dante, the son, and he invites her in and gives her a tour of the gardens. Floriana not only falls in love with the gardens but also Dante. Dante invites Floriana and Costanza to the villa and the two girls become friends with his sisters, to the delight of Costanza’s mother, who is very aware of the advantages of a link, preferably through marriage, between the Count and the Bonfanti family. She tries to separate Costanza and Floriana without trying to be too obvious about it, but the Bonfanti matriarch sees through her, especially when a party invite the Countess was supposed to pass on to Floriana goes missing.
Dante is packed off to university and returns to find Floriana has grown up into a very attractive, but poor, teenager. A night of passion gets Floriana in trouble and they arrange for her to be packed off to a convent, on the advice of the local priest who doesn’t believe Dante will give up his life of wealth to be with Floriana. However, Floriana’s father discovers Floriana’s secret and sobers up long enough to try to blackmail Beppe Bonfanti, a move that puts his daughter’s (and his cash cow’s) life in danger. Beppe brings in his fixer to “solve” the problem and a stranger shows up to escort Floriana “to the convent.” Floriana, a street brat only surviving to the brink of womanhood by her wits, her belief in the goodness within others and the watchful eye of a kindly neighbour (who naively didn’t give Floriana the facts of life talk), meekly goes with the stranger, even dismissing the idea of climbing out of her bedroom window to escape (another irritation). Something she could have done, after all she would have predictably run to the church and would have been easy to catch. Dante, discovering his lover is missing, starts searching for her, knowing that if his father knew Floriana was pregnant with Dante’s child, her life is in serious danger.
The two parallel stories are deftly woven together. If there is any weakness in the plot, it’s Santa Montefiore’s desire to neatly tie up all the loose ends, but that doesn’t deter from an engaging, credible story. Floriana is so charming and compelling, readers find themselves rooting for her and hoping for a happy ending despite the apparent hopelessness of her situation. Her charm has rubbed off on Rafa too, the best-drawn male character in the novel, particularly when he becomes anxious, realising that he’s close to finding the answers he wants but is concerned for the effects the answers would have for the people he now regards as friends.
However, it shouldn’t take seven chapters to set up a dysfunctional family at a hotel on the verge of bankruptcy, but “The House by the Sea” does. Likewise, readers are constantly reminded that Floriana and Costanza and even Dante are all different social classes so it is impossible for Floriana to expect to remain friends with Costanza into adulthood.and utterly ridiculous for to her to even dream of being Dante’s wife. The assumption that readers who can follow a soap opera don’t have a sufficiently long enough attention span to follow two parallel stories is insulting. However, like the thin girl inside Costanza who would get out if only she’d ignore her mother and pick her own self-esteem off the floor, there is a story here that’s worth a read. It would be an even better story if it had gone on a diet first.