When Molly Pargeter and her family--her husband, father, and three daughters--take a summer lease for La Felicita, an ironically named Tuscan villa in Mondano, Italy, she is curious about the owners. The owners have, after all, specified that they prefer a married couple with three children, preferably all girls, though Molly can't imagine why. The house comes with instructions and both a supervisor ("Mr. Fixit") and a housekeeper, both of whom Molly finds mysterious, and when the water disappears from the swimming pool and has to be replaced at exorbitant cost, she begins to wonder who has the water "concession" for the area.
As the family works its way into the society of other expatriates and Italian gentry in "Chianti-shire," the reader learns that Molly's husband may be unfaithful, that her father still regards himself as a great roué who hopes to make connections with a now-wealthy former flame, and that the local residents seem determined to prevent her from finding out information about the Ketterings, her landlords. With too little to do and an immense curiosity, Molly determines to find out all the secrets. The death of Mr. Fixit, found dead in an empty swimming pool, adds a sense of mystery, and Molly's discoveries about the Ketterings convince her even more strongly that there are hidden crimes behind the seemingly innocent façade of Mondano.
John Mortimer's wry satire of British life and society combines with his ironic humor as he shows Molly to be a meddlesome, if well-intentioned, women. His insight into the contrasts between her British mores and those of her Italian neighbors adds color to the novel and shows the Italians to be far more pragmatic than the overly "polite" society of the expatriates. The questions about the death of Mr. Fixit and the disappearance of Mr. Kettering grow, and Molly's pursuit of answers to questions which are none of her business leads to a dramatic, if somewhat enigmatic conclusion.
Molly and her family are not characters the reader cares much about, however, and this novel does not achieve the level of black humor which readers have come to expect from Mortimer. Light, satiric, and filled with local color, it is fun to read, however, and the conclusion may keep the reader pondering beyond the end of the novel. n Mary WhippleThe Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of Growing Old DisgracefullyFelix in the UnderworldMurderers and Other Friends: Another Part of LifeRumpole's ReturnRumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (Penguin Celebrations)