Like I always say, one can never go wrong with recommendations from certain bookish blogs! Stephanie is one and the other one is Jane. Jane has introduced me to Margaret Kennedy and Hélène Gestern and now Martine Bailey. If it had not been for Jane’s review for Appetite For Violets, I would have bypassed this book and that would have been such a loss!!
I have to own up front that I was predisposed to like the book even before I began reading it! It was a historical novel, 18th century to be exact, about an under cook (me…who loves food..this veritable Mana from heaven – a historical novel where food plays a critical part!) and naturally Jane’s review was always on my mind – but nothing had prepared me for its highly unusual and very unexpected twists of the plot!
Biddy Leigh is an under-cook at the Mawton Hall. She is engaged to be married to Jem who also works at the Hall and dreams of owning an eating house after she and Jem move from Mawton Hall. However all her plans are upturned when on a faithful day Lady Carinna, lately wife of Sir Geoffrey Mawton, and 40 years his junior turns up at Mawton Hall! Lady Carinna from the beginning displays an impatience to set off to Italy and makes no bones about having had a quarrel with her husband soon after their wedding. She indulges herself in all kinds of expensive luxury and takes a liking to Biddy, whom she meets when the latter serves her dinner because her page was missing. Lady Carinna’s retinue consisted of Amelia Jasmire, her lady in waiting and Mr Loveday, a African Slave, who works as Page/handyman etc. Very soon Lady Carinna sets off for her journey to Europe along with her retinue and two more addition, Mr. Pars who is the Steward of Mawton and Biddy Leigh. Biddy is not excited at the prospect of postponing her wedding and going off on a what she considers to be a wild goose chase, but she is convinced by Jem (who hopes for the bonus that Mr. Pars offers if Biddy will come on the journey) and the head cook who tells her that it is an opportunity of life time to enlarge her culinary skills! As they journey through Europe and Biddy is exposed to a bigger and at times a grander world, she begins to understand that there is more to the matter than meets the eye and while her repertoire and skills are honed as a cook, she is engulfed into a web of deception and greed, where loyalty is a high price and nothing is as it seems!
The book is undoubtedly well researched – the life and mannerisms of 18th century Europe comes alive and the great cities of London, Paris and later Florence throb with color, life and vibrancy, that comes through the pages. I loved such details as “a dish of tea” and restaurants being considered a place of “healthy eating”. The characters are very well drawn – one warms to Biddy and her sprightly determination from the very beginning. Lady Carinna is not a particularly likeable character, but it is easy to understand and empathize with her. My favorite character in the book was Mr. Loveday – it was wonderful how the author portrayed his slavery as subjugation of the soul and how in freedom, he throws away the remnants of his slave identity including his name Loveday!! The plot is quick and like the story is constantly in motion – I did feel for a moment in the middle, the grip being lost, but it was a very minor meandering and soon the pace was back. The ending though not original, still took my breathe away, simply because, of the way the author had crafted the story, where that particular line of action never entered my thoughts because of all the other events! This in itself is an art and like I have mentioned before, while the basic idea of many novels may be the same, since mankind is hardly too varying in nature, it is the way the novel is presented, where in lies the very mastery of the craft! The presentation is original and there is certain freshness about the closure that makes this book a great read!
Therefore, I say it again, It was a wonderful read and I strongly recommend it as definitive read!!