The Gypsy Madonna
Dutch edition of 'The Gypsy Madonna'
USA edition of 'The Gypsy Madonna'
UK Edition of 'The Gypsy Madonna'
What is her secret?
A priceless Titian masterpiece. A sumptuous French Chateau with a deadly secret. A Nazi warlord with a thirst for art. A vicious crowd and a sinister priest in a France of patriots and traitors. A small boy and his beautiful French mother. A raffish American with a plaintive voice and an enchanted guitar, who breezes into a Bordeaux village, full of mysteries and magic, and changes their lives forever.
Elegant Anouk, a dealer in American antiques, dies leaving the Metropolitan museum an uncatalogued, multimillion dollar painting by Titian. Her son, Mischa, never even knew she owned it.
This mystery sends him on the trail of his own history, back to that French village of his childhood. He expects to uncover the origins of the Gypsy Madonna; he never expects to find himself.
Santa Montefiore’s storytelling skills are at their peak in her vivid and absorbing sixth novel. Her unique combination of epic romance and dark mystery is here enriched by the tension and excitement of occupied France and the land of opportunity that is post-war America.
Last Voyage of the Valentina went down well in America. I wanted to continue writing about Europe but didn’t want to repeat what I had just done. So, I thought about other places I have been to and chose Bordeaux where I spent a few summers as a child. I love the French and adore France. There is something delightfully languid about the little country villages as if they are stuck in another, more charming age.
I had such fun writing the mystery of Last Voyage of The Valentina that I decided to write another, this time in the voice of a man. Writing from a man’s point of view wasn’t something I planned. It just happened. I put on some music and began to write in the first person, something I hadn’t done before, and suddenly I found myself in a man’s head and that was that. I haven’t done it again, not for lack of desire – The Gypsy Madonna was the easiest book to write because it was written in the first person, but because I just couldn’t hear the voice. I tried to write in the first person in the next book but couldn’t pull it off, so changed back into the third. If the voice isn’t there, there’s no pointing forcing it. It just isn’t there!
I think this books stands out from the rest. It’s just a little different. I adored writing it. I had to plot it very carefully and worked hard to make my hero, Coyote, mysterious. I think it works because he is only ever seen through the eyes of a boy and later a man. As the narrator I never have to go into his head (which I why I originally chose to write in the first person.) If I went into his thoughts I feared I’d ruin the mystery.
It’s funny how things fall into place as if there’s someone above pushing me to write certain things that make no sense at the time, but later complete the picture to perfection. I chose ‘Streets of Laredo’ for the song Coyote sings to the guitar. I liked it and my husband would often sing it to the children. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I realised how appropriate a song it was for Coyote. This type of coincidence happens all the time. I feel compelled to write something, go with my gut, and only discover why later on when the threads all meet at the end as if I had planned it that way all along. I hadn’t. A lot of the time I surprise myself.
After writing this book I received lots of emails from people telling me their own life stories and how after many, many years they had found their childhood sweethearts.
It all began on a snowy January day. January is bleak in New York. The trees are bare, the festivities over, the Christmas tree lights taken down for another year. The wind that races down the streets is edged with ice. I walked briskly with my hands in my coat pockets. Head down, eyes to the ground, lost in thought: nothing particular, just the business of the day. I tried not to think of my mother. I am an avoider. If something gives me pain I don’t think about it. If I don’t think about it, it isn’t happening. If I can’t see it, it isn’t there, right? My mother had been dead a week. The funeral was over. Only the journalists pestered like flies, determined to find out why an uncatalogued, unknown, Titian of such importance had only now come to light. Didn’t they understand that I knew as little as they did? If they were grappling in the dark, I was floundering in space.
Click here to read the first chapter
Santa Montefiore is the Mistress of epic romance and dark mystery…gripping novel.
Talk of The Town, 2006
What sparked the initial idea for The Gypsy Madonna? Did it start with a character, a scene, or something else?
I read an article in the British press during the D Day celebrations. It was called The Forgotten Victims (of the liberation of France) and the interview was with a man in his late 60s who was a boy in WWII in a small town in Bordeaux. His mother fell in love with his father, who was a German officer, and at the end of the war she was paraded in the town square, shaved, branded with the swastika and tortured. He described how he grew up in a climate of anger and disgust, bullied, tormented and isolated. The interviewer commented that he still spoke with a stammer. That article broke my heart and compelled me to write about it. I have a 3 year old son, which made the story all the more distressing for me as I identified. How could grown ups treat an innocent little boy like that?
You mention in the Acknowledgements section that you take an annual holiday in France. What is your favorite part of the country? Have these trips inspired The Gypsy Madonna’s French locale?
I went to Bordeaux a lot as a child, but I’ve since been to the Riviera and Provence. I love the South of France in particular and I find the French an intriguing lot. These trips made the book much easier to write, as I understand the French. I always base my books in places I know well as I don’t have much time for research writing a book a year and I like to be able to get under the skin of the country.
Part of the story takes place during and following the German occupation of France in the 1940s. How did you make certain to not only capture factual details about World War II but also to convey less tangible aspects, such as the feelings and emotions of the townspeople in the post-war years?
It’s much easier to write about the war than one would imagine. For a start, there are plenty of people still around who lived through it and they all have wonderful, colorful stories. There are shelves of books and videos based in the war too, which are invaluable. However, I would say that the most useful film I saw was The Blue Bicycle, which is based on a book, which I also read, and a book called Wine and War, how the wine families survived during occupation, which was fascinating.
Was it a challenge to write a novel with a male protagonist? A: No. I thought it might be, but writing in the first person was so much fun after having written my previous five in the third person. I settled into Mischa’s shoes rather easily, actually. I don’t know why, I just felt him come alive as I wrote and I began to think like a man. It must have helped having a son. I think I’ve always been able to empathise with characters in film, whether they are male or female – I have a rather over active imagination! It was so easy writing Gypsy that I tried to write the following book in the first person, being a woman, and it didn’t work! It’s a one-off, I think.
How did you so skillfully render Mischa’s experiences as a child? Is this the first time you’ve told a story partly from a child’s perspective?
It’s the first story I’ve written in the first person, although I have written about children in all my other books. I love children and understand them. Now I have my own, aged 5 and 3, I think I have a far greater understanding and empathy. I wrote this book from Mischa’s point of view because I wanted to make Coyote enigmatic. If I had written it in the third person I might have felt compelled to go into Coyote’s mind and that would have taken away his mystery. For example, the reader only sees Coyote through Mischa’s eyes. In the garden with Madame Duval does Coyote really see Pistou, or does Mischa believe he sees him because he wants him to? I enjoy a little magic and writing from the little boy’s perspective allowed me to indulge. Pistou was very dear to me as I have seen spirits all my life. They are around us all the time and you’d be surprised how many children see them. The secret worlds of children fascinate me – at what stage do we lose our wonderfully vivid imaginations?
When constructing a plotline do you generally think of a narrative as linear, or is it more like piecing together a puzzle? How about for The Gypsy Madonna in particular, which has a fair amount of twists and foreshadowing? A: I would love to say I plan my novels down to the last twist – I don’t. I have my basic plot line, which is linear and then I dive in. I do enjoy stories where you begin with a grown up and then flash back to his past. This has been done a hundred times, like the film Titanic, for example, or The Man Who Would Be King. I then followed my nose. I had no idea when I started writing that Mischa would fall in love with Claudine. I put her in the childhood section and then when I wanted Mischa to have a love story of his own, she seemed the logical person. It was fun to bring her back, especially married to the ghastly Laurent! I didn’t plan Captain Crumble’s Curiosity Store, nor Mischa’s trip to Chile. I look on a book as an adventure and I go down the most interesting path and see what I find. The fact that it all ties up together in the end is a fluke! The Laredo song was a big fluke. My husband has always sung it to our children, so I gave it to Coyote as it’s wonderfully romantic and sad. Only at the end of the book did I realize it how appropriate it was. The cowboy was Coyote and I never saw it until that moment. “We all love our comrades even though they done wrong.”
Mischa tells Matias and Maria Elena, “I love old things. I like to feel the pasts that lie within them. They all echo with the vibrations of the people who owned them and the places they’ve sat in…. I love to run my hand over the wood and feel the heartbeat, because they do beat, you know, if you listen.” Do you share Mischa’s affinity for antiques? If so, do you ever imagine their stories—who owned them and where they’ve been?
I share Misch’s belief that things vibrate with the energy of the people who owned them. I love old things because they all tell a story. Like people with rich and extraordinary pasts. I heard a story once of a man who bought an antique desk at auction and when he got it home he discovered a secret drawer which contained a diary of the woman who once owned it. The diary was a jewel of adventure, intrigue and skullduggery. I’m enchanted by secrets and mystery, as we all are.
Are you an admirer of Titian’s work? Which is your favorite painting?
I do like Titian, but I’m a Rafael girl at heart. I chose Titian because The Gypsy Madonna was such a great title and worked so well with the book. There was another Titian that I considered, “Sacred and Profane Love” but it was too long and complicated, I knew no one would ever remember it!
Is writing fiction a form of escapism for you? Do you write the kinds of book you also enjoy reading?
Writing is definitely a form of escapism. I dive into a world of which I have total control. I can allow my imagination to flow and take me to wonderful places. I do write the sort of books I enjoy reading, although my ability pales in the brilliance of some of the authors I admire, like Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of The Wind. I read non fiction too, which I’d never be able to write and historical fiction, like Phillipa Gregory, which I love but couldn’t begin to do myself. I know my limitations. Ultimately I write for my own pleasure. The moment it becomes a bore I’ll quit!
Critics have compared your novels to the works of Rosamunde Pilcher, Maeve Binchy, and Joanne Harris. What is it like to join the ranks of such illustrious writers?
I’m enormously flattered. I would never presume to compare myself to any of them and am extremely grateful that someone else has.