An Appetite for Violets, by Martine Bailey, ticks too many boxes to pigeon-hole into one, simple genre. It is historical fiction, dark mystery, romance, travelogue and cookery. The importance of food is integral to the plot, and offers a fascinating insight into how our forebears expected to eat by place and occasion. The story has been put together in a way that brings to mind a recipe, or receipt as it would then have been called. Each character’s deeds are added, but it is not until they are all mixed together and allowed to react with whatever acts and influences they are subjected to that we can be presented with the resulting dish. It is a clever and original writing device, made all the more tasty by the inclusion of actual recipes from the period explored. As each plot strand is prepared and served we progress as with a meal, which finishes with an unexpected reveal, leaving the reader comfortably replete.
Set in the late eighteenth century the book tells the tale of Biddy, an undercook at a country house, and her relationships with her new, young mistress and other members of the household staff as they embark on an unexpected journey from Cheshire, England to Florence, Italy. It is more than a tale of the privileged who live upstairs and their downstairs staff, although the insights given into each of the characters interactions and day to day lives are integral. It is more than a travelogue, even if the discomforts and privations of travel at that time are well described.
Journal entries and letters are included, as are some dream sequences which give the back story of a slave, footman to the new mistress and loyal friend to Biddy. This variety adds interest, although the pace throughout ensures that the reader is always eager to find out what is to be presented as the next course. There are mysteries to solve, secrets to uncover, plots to unravel. As the backgrounds to each character are gradually revealed the reader gains understanding as to why they act as they do. The story is both light and intriguing with twists and turns aplenty.
Prejudices and jealousies between class, race and nationality are explored as is the timeless corruption caused by differences in wealth. Alongside this we have faithful friendships, loves lost and found, the mindless cruelty of the self serving privileged, and acts of revenge. It is a cleverly woven tale, yet for all the depth and detail the book remains an easy and enjoyable read. Just as the lightest of dishes can contain a host of complimentary tastes and textures, so this book offers up a complex, thought provoking story that is easily digested.
Even with the addition of that final, unexpected twist, the ending was perhaps a little too sweet for my tastes. However, as an engaging, summer read for those who look for quality and substance without dyspepsia, this book offers up a veritable feast.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.