Review: Garden by the Sea

Along the northeastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, just a short drive from bustling Barcelona, a large villa faces the Mediterranean Sea. Here a gardener spends his days tending magnolias, lilacs, red geraniums and a promenade lined with linden and mulberry trees. He collects seeds in homemade envelopes and stashes them underneath his bed. On quiet nights, he sits outside his small house with a transistor radio--an extravagance for which he feels slightly ashamed, so he usually keeps it hidden. This gardener, the unnamed and unassuming narrator of Spanish author Mercè Rodoreda's (1908-1983) Garden by the Sea, flatly relates the dramatic lives of the villa's wealthy summer residents. A widower who has lived and worked on the property for decades, the gardener has become a fixture of the villa, and in this novel is the aperture through which readers come to understand the lives of its young residents.

As Margaret Powell demonstrated in memoirs, as P.G. Wodehouse showed with gentle humor in dozens of novels and as Kazuo Ishiguro made strikingly clear in The Remains of the Day, the literature of domestic service wields particular power when it comes to shedding light upon the interior lives of the upper class. The position that live-in servants occupy is distinct: in film and literature they often act as ciphers, as all-seeing eyes that allow the audience to understand the eccentricities, entitlements, indulgences and insularity of their wealthy employers. And at other key moments, these service workers cease being invisible, and their perspectives become fertile points of contrast. The style of Garden by the Sea is slow, observational and oblique, never strident.

Over a period of six summers in the 1920s, the gardener observes the lives of Senyoret Francesc, his wife, Senyoreta Rosamaria, and their friends Senyoreta Eulàlia and Feliu Roca, perpetual vacationers with family money. The first half of the novel focuses on the various leisure activities of this wealthy young group, including painting, horseback riding, throwing lavish parties and even collecting exotic animals. Several cooks and maids, most of whom are young women, travel alongside the young couple and their friends, purveying gossip around the household, often sharing it with the gardener. The novel begins to take on a darker tone when an extremely rich businessman, Senyor Bellom, builds an even grander villa on an adjacent plot of land at the request of his son-in-law. Rodoreda reveals a complicated history between the families, and the small dramas gradually become more serious each summer.

Although the changing relationships of the vacationers is what moves this book's plot along, they become almost ancillary to the way that early 20th-century Catalonian class-politics are subtly articulated through the gardener's observations. The patient, eloquent and often digressive prose of Rodoreda, who wrote in Catalan, provides an aesthetic experience on each page that assembles itself bit-by-bit into an unforgettable novel. --Emma Levy, publishing assistant, Shelf Awareness

Shelf Talker: Dark, comedic and written in lush detail, Garden by the Sea is a compelling portrait of the affluent vacationers of the beautiful Catalonian coast of the 1920s.

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