Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Martine Bailey - An Appetite for Violets

Irrepressible Biddy Leigh, under-cook at the forbidding Mawton Hall, can’t wait to settle down with her sweetheart and set up her own tavern. But when her elderly master marries the young, enigmatic Lady Carinna, Biddy is unwittingly swept up into a world of scheming, secrets, and lies.
Forced to accompany her new mistress to Italy, Biddy takes with her an old household book of recipes, The Cook’s Jewel, in which she records her observations. When she finds herself embroiled in a murderous conspiracy, Biddy realises that the secrets she holds could be the key to her survival – or her downfall . . .
AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS is an utterly compelling story of food, obsession and mystery, introducing a brilliant new voice in historical fiction.

Comment: Honestly, I don't remember how this book caught my eye. I just know it must have been intriguing enough for me to feel curious about it and get it. It has been in the pile for months and now I decided to read it but the only thing I knew is that it was an historical novel. I was both curious and wary of this and despite some good reviews I wasn't 100% certain about it which serves to show impulsive decisions do that to you...
This is the story of Biddy Leigh, a under-cook at a house in Mawton, England. She works in an elderly man's house, along with all the other servants and her life changes the day the master's much younger bride, Lady Carinna, arrives with her dog and two servants. Life seems to get complicated with her apparent snobbish presence there and even more so when she decides to travel to Italy, taking along with her two more of the house's occupants, namely a man of affairs and Biddy herself, to cook English food.
The story develops with Biddy recording all the dishes she makes and everything she does and sees. But weird things happen and when do arrive in Italy, there's deception, there are secrets and even murder. Can Biddy save her life?
Well, I was quite intrigued by this novel and from a certain point on I really felt I had to keep reading. But I'll be honest, the first 100 pages or so weren't as captivating and I found countless reasons to put the book down. I understand why everything looks so mysterious at first because I've finished the story but I had to tell myself I should go on, otherwise this would have been such an obligation it wouldn't be fun at all. But thankfully, it gets so much more intriguing when they arrive in Italy that it turned out it was unstoppable.
Basically, the story is told from Biddy's POV but we also have letters characters send (just one or two other characters do that) which help us to understand some later behaviors and Loveday, one of the Lady Carinna's servants, a black man with a lot of knowledge but always thinking about his family back home. Page by page we get to follow their steps, we get to know their thoughts and why they act a certain way, their wishes and, of course, all the little things that seem weird but in the end have quite the explanation!
I do admit I was surprised by some things, if not by how they happened.
This is the first book by the author I read, so I didn't have anything to compare her writing to, but overall it was pleasant, if slightly boring in the beginning. I liked all chapters started with a recipe or the instructions for a drink or something medicinal. All recipes proved important for that chapter's development. The book's structure was interesting, if only told - mostly - from a first person narrative.
The story follows Biddy in her thoughts about what surrounds her, about what her lady orders her to do, about the meaning of countless little things that in the end show us a bigger picture that, I'll be honest, I didn't see the way it apparently is. I was quite surprised by how the group's journey ended. Some things started to be obvious at a certain point, but the full explanations for the lady's journey to Italy, about the identity of a certain character, about the reasons for the money issues...all this was built in such a web of events I couldn't help but be amazed by how simple and complex this paradox situation turned out to be. The author was quite clever in the plotting, that I have to admit.
The character building felt average and done well enough. I think we got the right behaviors and personalities for the type of situations that were happening but none of the characters was that special from what one could expect in a murder mystery story. Ok, maybe Biddy's character surprised me by her easy acceptance of certain facts in the end (even if she had to do what was asked of her for the most part, being a servant) and her attitude towards a terrible situation - she couldn't control, but still - that somehow showed me she wasn't as perfect as it looked in the book. But I was still glad she got an HEA and found love and peace in her life. The romance was a good added bonus.
My biggest complaint has to be the pace, some of the structure feels very confusing and boring in the beginning, which made it more difficult to dive into the story. I can't say this is a big problem, but it took some time to get to the key parts, so I'd say the intro building up was too long at times.
Some readers mention the unlikeliness of the characterization but for me that wasn't as problematic as that, I just went through it... I think the end was quite well done, despite one situation not being completely explained...well, I guess that was intentional, to let us think, but...ok, I suppose one can interpret in a personal way.
All in all, I thought this was quite compelling when it mattered but had some issues that, despite not being big enough to ruin the book or the reading experience, were noticeable enough to be easily remembered. I'll try to read the other book by the author one day and try to see if she's an historical fiction writer I can be a fan of.
This one has good elements and a good amount of intrigue to entice readers...
Grade: 7/10

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