The Road To Le Tholonet by Monty Don, reviewed by Alison Levey

June 14, 2013

in Book Reviews, Reviews

After the series the book, of course. Here’s Alison Levey’s reflections on Monty Don’s latest, connected in some way to his French Gardens programme.

Anne Wareham, editor 

Monty Don A French Garden Journey

Alison Levey:

When asked if I wanted to review this book I had to make a confession; I had watched the BBC series ‘Monty Don’s French Gardens’ and I had been underwhelmed by it.  It did not appear to me half as good as his series on Italian gardens and that in turn had not met the achievements of his 2008 BBC series Around the World in 80 Gardens.  On saying that I have always enjoyed Monty’s writing.  He has a style that I like and in particular his gardening-related but non-practical gardening books I find very enjoyable.  So I read the book, I read the book quite quickly; it is an easy book to read.  It is almost what I would term a holiday read, good for a long journey or a sunny afternoon sitting in the garden.

The book is dedicated to Mme Tailleux; this is wonderfully mysterious and made me think of Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’.  Mme Tailleux is explained in the book so this romantic image is shattered, but for a moment there was an element of unexpected intrigue.

Monty starts the book by explaining it is a personal book, it is ‘random’ and a ‘ramble’.  That is a very good description for the book as it is all three of those things.  The opening few chapters are not garden-related as such and are autobiographical musings of the start of his love affair with France.  The book is steeped in his nostalgic memories all seen through rose tinted spectacles.  As this is a personal journey this is all perfectly acceptable and also rather charming.

It takes two chapters before you start to get close to a garden, up until then it is just Monty’s story.  His voice is very strong in his writing, you can almost hear him reading it out to you and see his facial and hand gestures.  His connection and love of France is palpable, there is no hiding how significant it was for him to live there during this early part of his life.

The potager at Villandry, Loire, France.  June. copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

The potager at Villandry, Loire, France, copyright Charles Hawes

The book moves around in time and at times I found I was confused whether we were in the present day or still in the past.  As the book progresses it overlaps more and more with the BBC series, yet this book is not a tie-in to the series.  This is not a BBC publication, it is not a glossy picture book with large colourful photographs of Monty wandering through fields or leaning on walls looking wistfully at a hedge.  There is no mention of the television series on the cover or even in the introduction.  If you did not know there had been a television series you could read this book and be none-the-wiser that there had been one.  Monty does refer to filming vaguely a couple of times but it is definitely not the core of the book.

Yet he talks about the gardens that he visited in the series and just as when I watched the series I felt the same peevishness start to build.  The chapter on Villandry was interesting, the book goes into more depth than the television sequence as I had hoped it would.  It tells you more about the garden and different parts of the garden, not just focussing on the vegetable garden.  Yet in the book Monty tells us that most of the vegetables are composted as they are grown purely for display, yet he makes no comment about what I see as an appalling waste.  I remain surprised that this appears to be considered reasonable.  I was reading this chapter whilst on a train and I think the other passengers could hear mutterings of ‘let them eat cake’ and ‘vive la revolution!’

section of the potager at Villandry, Loire, France copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

potager at Villandry, Loire, France copyright Charles Hawes

This actually brings me to my greatest criticism of the book.  The book is descriptive, it describes well yet it does no more.  It does not seek to find meaning or really discuss what we are looking at.  It accepts the gardens for what they are and goes no further.  I found this very disappointing.  I think I expected a bit more as Monty is not someone who is shy with his opinions. He makes clear his belief in organic gardening and I thought that freed from the shackles of what you can say on the BBC there might be a bit more commentary on what he was seeing.

We do however learn things; we learn that Monty has a deep love of French art.  We also learn that peas became a fetish for Louis XIV.  This was not quite explained so I was slightly disturbed about how this manifested itself.  (I have since looked it up, he liked eating them a lot and so they became very fashionable).

Monty does not only visit the large and the wealthy gardens, he goes to ordinary gardens, allotments and more modern gardens.  Some of these do feel a little glossed over, added more for completeness possibly rather than an actual interest in them.  Of course there is a chapter on Giverny; I believe it is compulsory to visit.

The book finishes with the gardens of war graves.  At this point Monty returns to the personal history and to his grandfather.  I do feel that when he is talking about his life and his history he is at his strongest and most elegant.

As mentioned before this is not a glossy book in any sense of the word.  The paper is rough and the few photographs that there are are in black and white.  There is an understated deliberate ‘anti-gloss’ feeling of the book which I understand, but sadly if I am offered photographs of a garden I want to be able to actually see what they are.  A case in point is the photograph of a shark-fin wave hedge which sounds interesting but the photograph is a dull flat picture in shades of grey.  This is an opportunity wasted.

I started off liking this book more than I expected. As I continued through it I found that, like his random ramble, I sometimes lost the way a little.  The book would benefit from more direction; it needs really to decide what it is: is it a personal history, a garden book or a travelogue?  I think it attempts to be all three but does not quite succeed.  That said I did enjoy reading it and if you enjoyed the television series I might go so far as to suggest you might like to read it.

Alison Levey 

Alison’s blog, The Blackberry Garden

Alison Levey portrait copyright Alison Levey

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Steer June 23, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Monty gave an entertaining introduction to this book at the Hay Festival this year. He admitted that it is a bit of a muddle, but he says that he muddles through most days. It seems an honest attempt to capture memory and sources of inspiration. I was intrigued by his comment that in the short TV series based on his book, the BBC omitted a garden created by a French philosopher because ‘we simply wouldn’t understand it ‘ !
We must all be a bit flowery in the head according to BBC producers.


annewareham June 23, 2013 at 2:03 pm

O, that is depressing – did you discover which garden he was referring to? (ed.)


Paul Steer July 16, 2013 at 11:35 am

Late reply I know, but the garden in question was La Vallee, the garden of Gilles Clement.


annewareham July 16, 2013 at 11:52 am

Never too late – you’d be amazed at the longevity of thinkingardens pieces. People read them after they’ve been up years…(AW)


ruth clausen June 16, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Interesting review. I appreciate what appears to be an honest opinion about the book, not glossed over with superlative comments. Thanks


Mirja von Knorring June 15, 2013 at 11:15 am

I shall buy the book for sure. It seems that Monty is describing us what he sees and how he experiences it through himself yet leaving himself out of it. In a way it is correct conduct for the artist in himself. I believe he is quite detached for the opinions of others and so he should be. Maybe it is a spiritual journey, a cultural perception that he wears well, a kind of love I suppose. The gardener becomes an artist himself when he is absorbed by it and uses it as the medium for the self-expression. Like Adrian Ferran cannot be imitated or criticized since he is an artist who uses food as his medium. We can like it or not and in the end of the day there is no dispute nor should be but there could be a dialogue.


Barbara Abbs June 15, 2013 at 9:04 am

When I was at Villandry I bought some veg which were for sale. Not everything is composted. But surely composting is the ultimate in sustainability?


Alison June 20, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Thanks for your comment Barbara. I am pleased if some can be purchased and whilst I agree that composting is a great thing, I am still perturbed by the mass composting of perfectly good food and that this does not seem to raise an eyebrow though.


Tristan Gregory June 14, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Thanks, a fine review and given the influence this unlikely chap now has his output should certainly be scrutinised.

We differ on one point, though and that is that a good book to me reflects my taste in garden design in that it will lead you so far down the road to a revelation or opinion but leaves the final few steps to the reader/viewer.

Part of the fun of the whole GW saga is to imagine the irritation and frustration that such person must illicit in a production team full of whizzy, clueless and absurdly confident little creatures.


emma reuss June 14, 2013 at 9:26 am

very enjoyable reading alison, thanks.


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