Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

An Appetite for Violets

Posted by nliakos on January 17, 2019

by Martine Bailey (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2014)

This is a really fun read, full of interesting historical tidbits from the setting (England, France, and Italy in the 1770s). The narrator/main character is Biddy Leigh, under-cook at Mawton Hall, near the Welsh border. Biddy (short for Obedience) is a delightful character, bright, hardworking, loyal and passionate. The reader cannot help but like her and be drawn in to her story–and what a story!

After the master of Mawton, Sir Geoffrey, marries Lady Carinna Tyrone, who is Biddy’s age (early twenties) and at least 40 years younger than her husband, Biddy’s life is upended. Her intended marriage to the local heart-throb, Jem, must be postponed while she travels with Lady Carinna; Carinna’s snobbish and unfriendly lady’s maid Jesmire; her footman, the Batavian slave Mr Loveday; and Sir Geoffrey’s steward, Mr Pars to London, Paris, and finally Tuscany to Villa Ombrosa, Carinna’s uncle’s estate. Biddy quickly makes friends with Mr Loveday, but she mistrusts and/or dislikes her remaining traveling companions, although she feels somewhat sorry for the sickly Carinna and promises to help her out of a difficult situation. Helping Carinna involves impersonating her to the lecherous Count Carlo, which leads Biddy to Carlo’s cook, Renzo Cellini. Renzo and Biddy, both lovers of good food and cooking, have much in common, but Biddy is afraid to tell Renzo who and what she really is. . .  until she has no choice.

Each chapter includes a recipe, and I was fascinated and sometimes repelled by the dishes described, like Viperine wine (To make a potent brew to prolong life and promote vitality drown several vipers in your wine and drink as you require) and Manus Christi (First take your sugar clarified and melt it in water of roses. Seethe these two till the water be consumed and the sugar hard, put in four grains of crushed pearls and precious stones, made in fine powder, then lay it in cakes on a marble stone anointed with oil of roses and lay on your gold.)

In addition to Biddy’s chapters (supposedly from a journal she kept in an old book of recipes given to her before she left Mawton), there are third person chapters from the perspective of Mr Loveday, letters from Mr Pars to his brother, and one extraordinary chapter (the first) about Carinna’s brother’s fruitless search for his sister in Villa Ombrosa, reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s creepy wedding banquet in Great Expectations.  There are many unexpected twists and turns to the story, but everything gets sorted out in the end. I loved it.


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