Reviewed by Danielle Simpson
Martine Bailey’s debut novel, An Appetite for Violets, is a deliciously inventive story in more ways than one. Let me set the opening scene for you. Imagine yourself in 18th century Italy. Outside Florence sits the Villa Ombrosa. A young man, recently arrived from England, approaches the villa in search of his sister. What he finds there will stagger him. The house sits empty save for a small dog in a high state of excitement. A dinner party has been interrupted mid-meal. Where are Lady Carinna and her guests? Surely they must be near at hand. On closer inspection, however, this is a dinner party that has gone seriously awry. The food grows mouldy, fit only for the flies that swarm about. A nauseous fragrance hangs in the air reminiscent of lilies at a funeral.
Whatever happened at the Villa Ombrosa is a mystery. It’s a mystery that Martine Bailey deftly spins out in such a manner that from this dark and sinister opening, she had me hooked and wishing myself traveling alongside Biddy Leigh in her unexpected and sometimes dangerous adventures. You see this is really Biddy Leigh’s story, though it’s through Lady Carinna’s deceptions that she finds herself living in a world unimaginable to her back in England. The beginning of the story is really the end, or nearly so, and it is in the hands of a most capable storyteller that this journey is undertaken, and that the reader finds herself completely wrapped up and speeding along as the rest of the world falls away.
Much like the story itself, I am getting ahead of myself, however. Let me tell you about Biddy Leigh, our heroine. She is one of the most engaging characters I’ve come across in a long time. Christened Obedience Leigh, how can she not but be a servant with such a name. She waits for the day she can wed the love of her life. Until then she hones her skills as a cook at Mawton Hall where the lord of the manor has brought his new, very beautiful and very young wife before scarpering off to Ireland. Lady Carinna is what you might call high maintenance. Certainly Biddy finds her mistress trying, but with each new task Lady Carinna sets her, Biddy’s world becomes a little grander and a little wider. And increasingly mysterious.
A wider world means Italy where Lady Carinna is sure the temperate conditions will improve her health. Grander takes the form of Lady Carinna’s small tokens and gifts, though it is hardly out of affection that they are given. It’s almost as though Biddy is being groomed for something. A dress here and a lesson in French there. Where will it end? But she is still a servant and it’s in the kitchen she feels most comfortable. As a matter of fact Biddy tells her story in the form of a book of receipts she uses as a journal, The Cook’s Jewel. Each chapter begins with a receipt giving a taste of not only events to come but of some exotic dish or 18th century remedy.
Like every good mystery, though, this is so much more than a mystery really: there is a puzzle that must be pieced together. As Lady Carinna’s elegant carriage hurries towards Florence by way of Paris, bits of the puzzle fall into place and Biddy’s journey, undertaken so warily, will open her world but only if she can come out unscathed. Little is as it seems and she realizes she is being drawn into something she can’t find her way out of. It’s a testament to Biddy’s goodness and tenacity that as more of Lady Carinna’s story is revealed, deceptions aside, she remains loyal to her mistress.
This is a story told with real oomph. The direction it takes after that initial scene is often unexpected but in an entirely welcome manner. There may be a dark and ever so slightly sinister undertone, but Biddy Leigh infuses the story with light and cheer, so it was with an equal measure of apprehension and impatience that I watched the story play out. Martine Bailey creates a believable 18th century world with just enough detail to make it vivid without it feeling heavy-handed. By the story’s end I was happy for Biddy, could turn that last page with contentment yet wish there was still more. Happily Martine Bailey is working on a second historical novel. An Appetite for Violets was inspired by recipe books from the 18th century which she matched with a love of food, history and travel. A perfect combination and, like Biddy’s cooking, mixed in just such a way to meld together all the flavors creating a most delicious story.
If you, too, read An Appetite for Violets (and I hope you will) and love it as much as I did and want a second (or third) helping I can suggest Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate for a story with a slightly more food slant or The Observations by Jane Harris for a grand house, a journal-keeping servant and a mistress as quirky as Lady Carinna.
Danielle blogs at A Work in Progress and is always ready for a fictional journey, would happily try any of Biddy’s delicious receipts (but generally steers clear of dinner parties).
Martine Bailey, An Appetite for Violets (Hodder & Stoughton: London, 2014). 9781444768725, 391pp, trade paperback.