The Grey Beginning, Barbara Michaels
Oh, the irony. After Wildfire at Midnight I wasn't quite ready for more Mary Stewart, so I thought I'd try a draw from the book box. But I ended up with a book that is first cousin to a Stewart story, one with echoes of Nine Coaches Waiting. Instead of a French château, there is an ancient Tuscan villa, where a young American woman meets a child count, recently orphaned and very lonely, with a cold and unloving guardian.
The young woman, who narrates the story, is Kathleen Malone Morandini. Recently widowed when her husband Bart died in a car crash, she has come from her home in Massachusetts to Tuscany. Against the advice of family and doctors, she feels that she must meet his grandmother, the Contessa Morandini, though the letters she has been sending for months have been ignored. Kathy arrives at the villa, in the countryside outside Florence, to find the gates firmly shut against her, and she has to force her way into the grounds. Along the way she meets the ten-year Pietro, playing by himself in the neglected gardens. When she finally makes her way into the house, she is stunned to learn from the Contessa that Pietro is her only grandson; Bart was her nephew and did not even carry the Morandini name.
This news overwhelms Kathy, who is already feeling ill. The Contessa leaps to the conclusion that she is suffering from morning sickness, which Kathy is in no state to discuss. Suddenly she finds herself transformed into a welcome guest, coddled with every luxury. At first she lacks the resolution to explain the mistake. Each day she spends at the villa makes that explanation more difficult, and increases the risk that she will be exposed as an impostor. But meanwhile she is getting to know Pietro, and to feel increasing concern over his isolated, lonely life in a crumbling villa. She begins to wonder why he is locked in his room every night, and why the Contessa's maid is carrying trays into a wing that is supposedly deserted. She also wonders about a young American, David Brown, whom the Contessa has hired to search the villa's extensive and overstuffed attics for antiques that she can discretely sell. He admits that is a bit of a smokescreen; he is really hunting for family papers that he can use for his doctoral dissertation on 19th-century tourism in Italy. But is that admission just a double-bluff?
I really enjoyed this book, with its modern take on the Gothic novel. It is vintage Barbara Michaels. The story kept me guessing, surprising me with at least three major plot twists that I never saw coming. The settings are vividly evoked, particularly the decaying villa set amidst its neglected gardens, but also Florence itself, where Kathy escapes to play tourist. On one of her trips, she picks up a second-hand copy of The Innocents Abroad, which proves a welcome distraction from the strains of life at the villa. She also buys one called Bride of the Madman, which gives Barbara Michaels a chance to play with some of the conventions of the Gothic novel - even as her character reading the book is herself caught up in a Gothic story. Does that count as meta-fiction?
This book is the second I've read for the Peril the First, with the R.I.P. VIII challenge.