A few summer months spent along the glorious, sunny coast of Italy/Croatia/Eastern European countries that no longer exist in the company of an attractive and talented young man sounds like bliss to me. And it is to Lady Grace Kilmichael too, who heads to the Dalmation Coast with her paintbrushes and a copy of The Stones of Venice to escape her rapidly disintegrating home life. Her husband, a celebrated economist, is having an affair (though it appears to be more of an intellectual than a sexual one) with a woman whose intellectual prowess is far beyond Grace’s; their marriage has become lifeless and Grace feels stupid and useless in her husband’s presence. Her only daughter, Linnet, a beautiful 19 year old, is dismissive of her mother and while she loves her, resents her neediness. Grace realises a radical overhaul of her life is needed, and so she heads off alone to discover who she really is and why her life hasn’t turned out as she had expected.
While in Italy Grace meets a young (22 year old) man named Nicholas, who is also escaping an unsatisfactory home life. He longs to paint but has been forced into architecture by his parents, who only want one artist in the family, and that position is taken by Nicholas’s talentless sister. Grace happens to be a famous painter, but she doesn’t tell Nicholas this when she offers to coach him. As the days go by they develop a cosy intimacy, and as they move on along the coast, they reveal more of themselves to each other and gradually work out who they really are and who they want to be. Grace discovers that she is far more intelligent than she thinks, and that she is loved more than she realised. Nicholas is encouraged in his painting by Grace and gathers the strength to fight for his right to live the life he wants rather than what his parents want. And through all of this a friendship, love and affection grows that gives both Nicholas and Grace a peace and contentment that allows their true natures to blossom, unencumbered by the expectations of those that already know them.
There are more characters than this, and all of them are wonderful, but the real star of the book is the backdrop; Ann Bridge was a diplomat’s wife and was widely travelled, and this shows in her terrifically vivid descriptions of the natural and man made environment along the coast of the Dalmatian region. I am now definitely determined to take a trip to Split (referred to by its Italian name, Spalato, in the book), which sounds like a jewel of a coastal city in Croatia, as well as many of the other towns and villages Bridge mentions.