Playing the Fool in Lake Como with ‘Madame Solario’ #20BooksofSummer

After reading Heavenali’s glowing review of Madame Solario (1956) by Gladys Huntington recently, I knew I would have to use another of my ‘jokers’ (I’m currently suffering a self-imposed, year-long, book-buying ban, but have a buffer of three book purchases for emergencies only). The novel is set by Lake Como in Italy, where I was soon heading for my brother’s wedding later in the month, so I knew it would make the perfect reading material for my trip. 

madame solario

The novel is set in the town of Cadenabbia, where members of the wealthier classes congregate to while away the summer. The novel is not what you would call plot-driven, but Huntington weaves mood and character with a golden touch, vividly evoking a sense of breath-taking location, peopled by an elite in limp white linen, languidly lounging in the heat of the Italian sun.


Madame Solario is in three parts, the first and third narrated by Bernard Middleton, a young man just out of Oxford, having a breather in Italy before taking up what sounds like a dull career in banking. He is young and naive, and feeling the pangs of disappointment that a woman he has admired has left, broken-hearted at her unrequited attachment towards the Russian officer, Kovanski. Kovanski, in turn, is in love with the mysterious Madame Solario. There is much speculation about her among their social set, and there are rumours of a family scandal involving a relationship with her step-father, and her now estranged brother. Perhaps due to this intrigue, and also her alluring and enigmatic beauty, Bernard is drawn to Madame Solario, and feels protective towards her, ultimately being willing to jeopardise his plans and even his future for her.


When her brother makes an unexpected appearance, the novel switches focus and we see his Machiavellian plans to exploit their current situation to their best advantage. Further scandal comes to light, but throughout, Madame Solario retains her mysterious aura, and we are never allowed to penetrate her thoughts and feelings. I found it to be a curious novel, as not very much happens, although much is suggested, yet I know it will stay with me for a long time, as the evocation of place and mood were so vivid.

Whilst I wasn’t staying in Cadenabbia, but further south in Cernobbio, the scenery was very similar, and it was delightful to sit by the lake reading descriptions of the steep hillsides wooded with Cypress trees that I could see before my very eyes. Also, the morning after the wedding party took a cruise to a restaurant across the lake, I read a description of a boat trip, which was quite uncanny.

At last the launch was cleaving through the water; the air freshened, the land receded, and Cadenabbia became a string of little houses along the shore, with a mountain rising steeply up behind. And they were making for more beautiful shores, seeing mountains all around them like moving processions of shapes that kept changing their positions in relation to one another as the launch sped towards the middle of the lake. Mountains behind mountains majestically moved in their own rhythm, while under the launch the water rushed gaily away in two high waves from the sharp prow. A light spray flew up; it was pleasant on that hot day.

Towards the end of the novel, the characters all go to a ball held at the Villa D’Este, where we were staying for the wedding, so reading that was even weirder but utterly wonderful.