Martine Bailey’s AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS is a fascinating and enjoyable literary adventure that involves mystery, passion, and culinary details that make the story even richer. Though the novel features a colorful cast of characters and the tale is sometimes told through letters or various points of view, I was most attached to the main character and narrator, Biddy Leigh. She’s strong, witty, and inventive, and she has a streak of adventurousness in her that she would have denied was even present at the start of the story.
As a history buff, I loved the eighteenth century setting and details, and the mystery of the abandoned Villa Ombrosa in Italy that opens the story. Though Biddy soon becomes wrapped up in that storyline, a mystery that involves her employers, and travels across the sea to France and then Italy, the details I found most appealing were when Biddy was back at the English estate where she was employed as an under-cook.
Biddy’s profession and preoccupation with cooking is ever present in the novel and one of its most charming features. Recipes are included at the start of every chapter. Though the recipes aren’t necessarily practical for the modern cook, they are a delicious addition to the story that brings Biddy more fully to life and enriches the book as a whole.
AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS has something to offer for those who enjoy richly detailed historical fiction with a bit of Gothic suspense, or those who love food and food history and don’t mind being taken on an exciting adventure too.
Biddy is an under cook in the fine English estate of Mawton Hall. She plans to marry her beau Jem and their pipedream is to start a tavern together. But when her employer takes a new wife, the young Lady Carinna, Biddy is sent to accompany her mistress on her travels. Along the way, she encounters Lady Carinna’s intriguing and appealing younger brother, Kitt, continues to collect recipes and document her travels in her journal, and becomes embroiled in more mystery and intrigue than she ever imagined an under-cook’s life might afford.
“That’s how it is for us servants. No one pays you much heed; mostly you're invisible as furniture. Yet you overhear a conversation here, and add a little gossip there. Then you find something, something you should not have found.”
Irrepressible Biddy Leigh, under-cook at forbidding Mawton Hall, only wants to marry her childhood sweetheart and set up her own tavern. But when her elderly master marries young Lady Carinna, Biddy is unwittingly swept up in a world of scheming, secrets, and lies. Forced to accompany her new mistress to Italy, she documents her adventures and culinary discoveries in an old household book of recipes, The Cook’s Jewel. Biddy grows intrigued by her fellow travelers, but her secretive and unconventional mistress is the most intriguing of all.
In London, Biddy finds herself attracted to her mistress’s younger brother. In France, she discovers her mistress’s dark secret. At last in Italy, Biddy becomes embroiled in a murderous conspiracy, knowing the secrets she holds could be a key to a better life, or her downfall.
Inspired by eighteenth-century household books of recipes and set at the time of the invention of the first restaurants, An Appetite for Violets is a literary feast for lovers of historical fiction. Martine Bailey's novel opens a window into the fascinating lives of servants, while also delivering a suspenseful tale of obsession and betrayal.