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BookBrowse Reviews An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey

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An Appetite for Violets

A Novel

by Martine Bailey

An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey X
An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey
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  • Published:
    Jan 2015, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez
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When Biddy Leigh's master marries Lady Carinna, she is unwittingly swept up in a world of scheming, secrets and lies.

Can there be anything more fetching to a mystery loving foodie who also enjoys historical fiction than the delicious tale of two women – one a lady, the other a servant – up to some very unsavory doings? No. And Martine Bailey's debut delivers just that – a tale about Obedience (Biddy) Leigh, a young Eighteenth Century British undercook and the Lady Carinna, Mistress of Mawton Hall.

An Appetite for Violets begins with a teaser, a prologue if you will. Eighteen-year-old Kitt Tyrone has travelled from England all the way to Italy in search of his sister, Carinna. What he encounters at her last known address is the remains of some unspeakable occurrence. The deserted Tuscan villa is bloodstained and filthy, with rancid food in disarray on a table of upturned plates and bowls. There's evidence of no small amount of violence, plus there's a snarling, barking half mad dog. All of this has apparently been abandoned in great haste. I was hooked. Like a whiff of some heady aroma wafting from a gourmet chef's kitchen, this tableau promises a complex concoction of delicious elements.

Six months earlier, the downstairs of Mawton Hall – near the Welsh border - is abuzz with the surprise arrival of Sir Geoffrey's young – by 40 years - bride, Lady Carinna. She sweeps imperiously into the house with Jesmire, her lady's maid; and her footman, an East Indian slave called Mr. Loveday; and then takes immediately to her quarters. Everybody is already suspicious because Sir Geoffrey is nowhere to be seen. He is apparently ailing at his estate in Ireland with no plans to return to Mawton. Practically within hours of entering the home, Carinna announces that she wishes to visit her uncle's villa in Italy. She will require a coach, a driver, her maid and footman plus the saucy cook Biddy Leigh. Of course, Mr. Pars, steward of Mawton Hall is expected to accompany them on this thousand-mile journey. Oh, and they are to leave as soon as possible.

Biddy doesn't want to go. First of all, she doesn't want to leave her beau Jem. Second, nobody can understand why Lady Carinna has given this order since Biddy's only an undercook. At twenty-two, despite her natural ability in the kitchen, she is still just learning her trade. But the mistress has spoken and Biddy's friend and mentor, Mrs. Garland, convinces her that this is the opportunity of a lifetime for a cook. "If I were but twenty years younger I should fight you for this chance…Watch, learn and taste for me, girl."

From here on the narrative is largely in Biddy's words as she writes in a journal Mrs. Garland has given her. The woman has sewn blank pages in the back of a treasured cookbook so that Biddy can keep a diary. "Write it all down for your old friend, Biddy. Tell me what you see, who you meet, and mostly what you eat. Write careful descriptions and copy receipts (recipes) if you can." The Cook's Jewel, as the cookbook is called, is a compendium of recipes, "written in so many hands: Lady Maria's (Sir Geoffrey's now-deceased first wife), her friends', her cooks' and neighbors'." Biddy cherishes everything about it, calling the authors, "My guides from the past, who had cooked and perfected and written down their finest inventions."

With the exception of a handful of chapters that are from Mr. Loveday's point of view, each chapter begins with a recipe from Mrs. Garland's book. From "Taffety Tart" to "Funeral Cakes" there is a recipe for just about anything a person might need or encounter, including a poultice for reducing swelling. And it's a good thing too, since Biddy will need them as she is taken in by the trickery and deceptions of her scheming travel mates. For the trek across France, over the Alps to Italy, is perilous - not just the travel conditions, but also the scene that the travel leads to (that Kit encounters at the villa.)

It's hard to say who is the most sinister. Certainly we can tell from the beginning that Carinna ain't no lady, abusive as she is to one and all. Mr. Pars plays his cards close to his chest. And who knows what Jesmire is up to? Of course, Carinna's dear brother Kitt is a flat out scoundrel and a gambler. Hints and clues are dropped so subtly that Bailey had me going back to reexamine certain passages. But the outcome is both logical and a surprise. And the food? Well, the food is as fascinating and complex as the characters.

Two things set Bailey's mystery apart, above the formulaic. First and foremost Biddy's voice feels (a couple hundred years hence) authentic. She is engaging, naïve and her assessment of her fellow travelers makes them credible. Food mysteries are nothing new, but Bailey has taken the genre to a whole untapped level with this historical approach. Secondly this is no standard whodunit. It is more a who-is-likely-to-do-it, how and when. We know from the start, from the prologue, that something is going to go down. The tension builds in the anticipation.

While it seems unlikely there will be a sequel, I nevertheless hope An Appetite for Violets is but a particularly toothsome hors d'oeuvre on Ms. Bailey's bill of fare.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review first ran in the February 18, 2015 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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