Mary Panton, a wealthy and beautiful widow who lives in an old villa in the hills overlooking Florence, is asked by a longtime friend to marry him. While he is away for a few days and she is considering his proposal, an encounter with a young refugee could destroy all her plans for the future.
This is a short but intense novel that makes some poignant observations on the many facets of love, with Florence and the Tuscany region as a beautiful backdrop against which the action plays out. Mary is surrounded by three men: the much older and steady Edgar Swift, who wants to marry and take care of her for the rest of his life; the shady philanderer Rowley Flint, who also proposes marriage to Mary, but whose intentions are less pure; and finally Karl Richter, a poor student who fled from the Nazi regime, and who mistakes an act of kindness by Mary for something more.
Early in the novel, Mary laments that men have courted her since her sixteenth birthday, and that they all were of the impression that her only purpose in life was to satisfy their urges. Although she suffered greatly in the marriage because of his drinking and gambling, her late husband has been the only man she ever loved, and her experiences with him have made her wary of falling for someone again. She has deep affection for Edgar, but is only thrilled by what life with him would provide, Rowley she at first despises for his loose attitude, although she then sees merit in it herself, while Karl is the one she gives something of herself to out of compassion and a sudden bout of emotionality, but instead he feels used and betrayed by her. Mary loves none of them, and even the men who talk of love don’t know what they are going on about. There is affection, obsession, possessive urges, friendship, and mutual benefit, which are all just parts of the puzzle, but never the full picture.
These little nuances in the relationships between Mary and her suitors are what makes the novel so compelling. As usual, Somerset Maugham knows how to write characters that are so flawed and human that you can’t help but feel for them. I had great sympathy for Mary who has suffered so much already and tries to find a way forward without getting trapped again, but then endangers all of it by getting tangled up in a terrible situation caused by a single foolish impulse, and who doesn’t know about those?
Somerset Maugham has been one of my favourite authors for a long time because in many of his books he creates small worlds that combine beautiful locations and memorable characters, which now and then makes you wish that you could actually be there. Reading his books is escapism in its finest form, and although his works are not generally lighthearted, the dry humour and expansive humanity of his stories make them immensely fascinating and enjoyable to me.
CBR12 Bingo: I Wish