Have you ever read a book and when you finished it, just thought “meh”? It’s a very VERY rare occurrence for me. As any of my friends will tell you, I’m a creature of extremes. A passionate one, no less. I can wax rhapsodic for days about stuff I love. If anyone lights my blue touchpaper on something I can’t bear, brace yourselves. So it was a real surprise to me when I was so excited to read this (not least as it was compared to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is one of my desert island books) and was left feeling very blah and unfussed by the end of it.
Set in the late 1600s, it tells the story of John Saturnall, whose mother dies of starvation/exposure after the town they live in drive them out as they fear she is a witch. John is taken in as a kitchen boy at Buckland Manor. He demonstrates his skill in the kitchen and is swiftly promoted. When he finds out the lord’s daughter, Lucretia, is undertaking a fast to try and force her father to end her engagement to some drippy earl or other, John is tasked with making her ever more delicious treats to tempt her to break it, well, you can probably guess what happens.
And that, I think, was my issue with this book. It was obviously a labour of love. The meticulous research drips from every page, especially when each chapter opens with an excerpt from John’s recipe book. It all creates a beautifully detailed picture of what life would have been like, but everything else that is going on is of less interest, and far less skilfully told. There are a lot of characters, most poorly fleshed out. There’s a lot of jumping around at the start which makes it difficult to really get to grips with what exactly is going on. And once you have got to grips with it, the eventual destination is painfully, almost tiresomely evident.
As painless and interesting diversions go, this is fine. But it’s never anything more than that, so if you’re looking for a historical novel to change your life, this isn’t it. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, on the other hand……