Martine Bailey, An Appetite for Violets (2015)
Start with an intriguing opening: a mouldering, uneaten feast, seen through the eyes of a hapless young man in search of his runaway sister. Add some piquant ingredients: the voices of servants, with their own lives and thoughts under the genteel surface imposed by their aristocratic employers. Take both servants and masters on a journey from northern England to Tuscany, mixing well along the way. Result: a thoroughly entertaining historical mystery, with a culinary slant.
In this tale inspired by and incorporating a collection of antique recipes, it’s natural enough that the main narrative belongs to an energetic young cook, Biddy Leigh. Biddy’s distinctive first-person voice provides much of the charm of the novel, and her enthusiasm for gastronomic adventure is contagious. When torn from her familiar surroundings by the seeming whim of her mistress, taken on an increasingly puzzling journey through France and over the Alps to Italy, she loses no opportunity to learn and benefit from her expanded horizons, and sharing her experiences is a treat for us as well. But when the game becomes deadly serious, can she cook her way out of this turn of events?
Although the components of this novel were splendid, the last stages of their assembly left something to be desired. Biddy’s mistress asks her to take part in a deception that requires her to act and talk in a way that is not truly believable for her character, and that also caused her to lose much of her distinctive “flavor.” An overly hasty love story and an unnecessarily melodramatic twist also marred the final chapters. Like cooks, novelists must beware of too many ingredients, too eagerly flung together. However, An Appetite for Violets is in the main a delicious concoction, full of historical details that don’t bog down the story but provide many delightful moments to savor.
Linked in Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads