For years, guests of the Tuscany Hotel could leave their pasts behind and live among fellow artists. Now guests of a different sort fill the rooms, searching for their memories—no matter the cost. Run by renowned sculptor Robert Gandy and his wife and muse, Magdalena, the Tuscany Hotel hosted guests of a certain kind—artists, actors, scientists, and engineers who left their worries behind so that they could create their latest masterpieces. Surrounded by lore, the hotel was rumored to free the mind and inspire artists’ gifts. But tragic circumstances force Robert and his family to move.
After thirteen months at war, Vittorio Gandy is haunted by memories, and his former life is unrecognizable. Once a gifted painter, now he can’t bear the vivid, bleeding colors on a canvas. His young son doesn’t remember him, and his wife, Valerie, is scared of him. But the most disconcerting change is in Vitto’s father, Robert Gandy, who has fallen from being a larger-than-life sculptor to a man whose mind has been taken by Alzheimer’s.
When Robert steals away in the night, Valerie, Vitto, and his new acquaintance and fellow veteran John go to the only place Robert might remember—the now-abandoned Tuscany Hotel. When they find him there, Robert’s mind is sound and his memories are intact. Before long, word gets out that drinking from the fountain at the hotel can restore the memories of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. The rooms once again fill up with guests—not artists this time, but people seeking control over their memories and lives. Vitto desperately wants to clear his own mind, but as he learns more about his mother’s life and her tragic death, he begins to wonder whether drinking the water comes at a price. A story of father and son, memories lost and found, artists and their muses, Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel explores the mysteries of the mind, the truth behind lore, and the miracle of inspiration.
At just twenty four years old, Vittorio Gandy has already established himself as a talented painter, but with the start of World War II he is shipped overseas to fight. While over there, he receives letters from wife Valerie gently explaining that the family fortune has all but dried up and she's had to take up miscellaneous work to make ends meet --- everything from selling war bonds to growing a victory garden and even taking a part time job at a local factory.
Vittorio's father, Robert, grows up an only child and heir to an oil fortune as well as a rock quarry. As a young man, Robert travels to Italy to study and practice his work as a sculptor. It is there he meets the beautiful Magdalena. Immediately smitten, he convinces her to come away with him and start a life together. Magdalena, not only having fallen in love with Robert but also needing to flee an abusive guardian, travels with Robert to California, settling in an area that would soon become the town of Gandy. There Robert uses his fortune to buy the land the town is built on and gets to work building the Tuscany Hotel. The Tuscany will honor his wife's heritage and encourage a modern day Renaissance where artists, writers, actors, and painters can come and feel inspired.
It's years later now when we meet son Vittorio as a young enlisted man. The hotel has long been shuddered up and abandoned and Robert is battling Alzheimer's. Vittorio returns home but keeps the day of his arrival a surprise. Naturally his family is delighted to see him at first, but it's not long before Vitto's PTSD begins to rear its head. Thanks to the horrific images he brought back from war and stored in his mind, he can't bring himself to paint anymore. He's a stranger to his young son and Valerie grows increasingly more uncomfortable in his presence. She begins to pull away as Vitto's behavior becomes more and more combative, the last straw being the night when he becomes confused during a hallucination and nearly strangles her to death.
Vitto checks himself into an in-patient therapy program for veterans at the hospital, but when Robert goes missing one night after an earthquake, Vitto goes back home to help track him down...though everyone can guess where Robert went. Sure enough, Valerie and Vitto find him at the abandoned Tuscany Hotel. The courtyard fountain is running again, Robert is sculpting like no time has passed at all, and his mind seems to have been restored!
"Time can be a tenuous dancing partner, Mr. Gandy. And memory the devil. Sometimes the wounds we can't see leave the worst scars, unless they're tended to."
By the next day, Vitto's discovered that his father has plans to re-open the Tuscany and already has an ad in the newspapers. John, a fellow veteran Vitto met in the therapy program -- cheery, tender-hearted, and perpetually curious -- signs on as the hotel's new chef. Before long, word spreads of the hotel fountain's healing powers against mind crippling conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer's and people come from far and wide desperately hoping to help their loved ones.
New life is breathed back into the property and even Valerie finds herself gravitating back towards her husband rather than away. Even so, Vitto has his hesitations about all these new developments. For one, he's always been plagued by the death of his mother and whether there was any truth to the rumors about it possibly being a suicide. Will all this new attention to the hotel stir up those old stories as well as feelings he may not be ready to face? Then there's the fountain itself. Even though people praise the restorative properties the fountain water seems to have on them, Vitto begins to fear there may be a dark price to pay for the remedy. He resists drinking the water himself until the day his son asks him to drink, hoping that drinking the water in front of his son will be just the act of trust they need to restore the father-son bond.
Don't drink it, Vitto wanted to say, unsure why. Because every day has its night. Because what goes up must come down. Because memories can cut as much as they cure. And because he'd learned through the war that life too often was fool's gold. Rays of a beautiful sunrise led to rivers of blood. Under lush canopies of evergreen forest, combat stained the silent snow cherry red. Craters and limbs pocked fields and countryside. Last words traveled on breezes choked with smoke and death.
Periodically, there are chapters where we get snippets of the mysterious life story of Magdalena, who has no long term memory of her own but seems to possess the memories of famous artists throughout history, such as da Vinci or Mozart. There's also a few throwbacks to how Valerie and Vitto met as children, growing up together as best friends before eventually becoming romantically involved.
I've read all but two of Markert's books at this point and I'd say this is one of his grittiest to date, in terms of subject matter. Readers are not only presented themes of depression (sometimes to the point of suicidal thought) and PTSD, but also graphic imagery of war, namely in-depth, uncomfortable descriptions of executed Jews. The setting is post-Depression era, like several of Markert's stories, and the writing is lyrical as ever... yet, something didn't fully click with this reader to make it a homerun read. Some passages moved a bit slow, others ran on a little long. While I liked the setting and characters well enough --- I especially loved the conversations between John and Vitto, their banter reminded me a bit of Teddy and Bob from Bob's Burgers --- there were times when my interest waned and the reading began to feel a bit like a chore. The light touch of magical realism Markert tends to weave in his novels was pretty faint here as well, compared to the earlier works. But it's also one of those books where if you push through during the down periods, there is payoff later on.
"Your mother.... the horrors she lived through... it wasn't that much different from what you... what your army doctor called battle fatigue? Combat exhaustion? Hell doesn't always require a war, Vittorio."
Discussion questions guide available at the back of the book for reading groups interested in making this a possible book club pick.
FTC DISCLAIMER: BookLookBloggers and Thomas Nelson Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.