Jul 24 2008
Dear Ms. Thomas,
Book two and all is still well between us. Keep this up and I’ll stay a happy woman and keep writing you nice reviews. I used to think I didn’t care for Victorian era historicals – something about the facial hair of the men and hairstyles of the women – but you’re still luring me into parlor palms and antimacassars.
I’ll admit that when I started the book, I wasn’t too sure for a while exactly what was going on. The heroine is a fallen Lady who cooks divinely, yea even unto making English people sit up and notice. I got that. She’s got an illegitimate son but he’s in a good home and being raised to be a gentleman. So far so good. Her employer just keeled over during the soup course and, what’s this?, they’d had an affair and he refused to marry her after she thought he would? And then she remains his cook for 10 years? Even after she had a ‘one night to remember all my days’ with his illegitimate half brother. Oh my. What’s going on here?
And the half brothers who used to be close ended up in the law courts making life miserable for each other? And the Lady cook’s Dowager Duchess Auntie is a vengeful old biddy, hell bent on denying the poor woman a second chance? And the obvious hero of the story is now engaged? And his fiancee is trading barbed snipes with his secretary? I needed to find a mental happy place.
Or did I because despite all this doom and gloom I was smiling and chuckling.
The upper-crust gentlemen of this country were valiant in battle, decent to their inferiors, and passably competent in bed, but they were, almost without exception, helpless before the simplest of domestic tasks-’and proud of it, taking it as a badge of their true gentility.
"Strong spirits only give Cinderella a hangover to go with her heartache," she said, even as she took a swallow of the whiskey. "It makes her terribly cross in the kitchen."
"I thought Cinderella was always gentle and kind and uncomplaining."
"Do you know why?" She looked up at him, her voice suddenly heated. "It’s because these tales have been written by men, men who have never spent so much as an hour in the kitchen. The real Cinderella curses, smokes, and drinks a bit too much. Her feet hurt. Her back hurts. And she’s resentful. She would like her pumpkin coach to run over the Wicked Stepmother. And Prince Toad too, if possible."
And despite the flashbacks – which I didn’t have a problem understanding – I was beginning to find my way around the plot and to root for the characters. Plus you also can condense emotions and situations down to the essence.
Then she put her arms to use. She clutched him to her, as if she were a grasshopper and he the last day of summer, and kissed him back.
At the church she’d mostly had a view of the back of his head, a view that had been further obstructed by an inconveniently placed pillar. He’d sat at the foot of the pulpit, while she’d stood at the very back, in a huddle with the other servants-’the distance between them sixteen rows of pews and the whole structure of the British class system.
I still wasn’t sure how you were going to work out the ‘oh by the way the hero is engaged to someone else’ angle as I recalled from watching “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” years ago that broken engagements could be very costly and damaging to reputations. Then there was the fact that for half the book, the hero still hadn’t realized that the woman he’d loved for 10 years was right under his nose and I was getting more than just a little bit impatient with all the close calls, convenient handkerchiefs, masks supplied by the hero no less and improbable bathroom encounters.
And…and…how could Stuart have been legitimized? Was that possible then? Because Fairleigh Park had to be entailed or else Stuart would have got it when his father died since everything but entailed stuff was left to him. I am confused.
I think foodies will swoon with joy as they read about the delectable creations Verity and her minions create.
The conversation that had reached a steady hum as the soups were brought in faltered abruptly when the first spoonfuls reached unsuspecting lips. Potage imperatrice was a thickened bouillon. Potage Fontanges was, if one must be blunt about it, a soup made from pureed peas. But the looks of amazement on his guests’ faces would have one believe that they’d been given sips from the Fountain of Youth.
She’d outdone herself. He didn’t know how it was possible, but the flavors of the soups were more fierce and more seductive than anything he’d ever tasted. He was robbed of speech, almost of thoughts altogether. The only thing left to him was a hot, brutal grief-’and a relentless wish that that it didn’t need to end this way, swift, merciless, final.
His guests’ silence was the one small mercy of the evening. Beside him the dowager duchess ate carefully, soundlessly, the expression on her face half way between pain and bliss.
Toward the end of the course, the conversation tentatively resumed. No one spoke of the food-’the experience was too strange, too unnerving for a roomful of good, solid Englishmen and women who’d never had their attention commandeered by mere dinner. Instead, they murmured distractedly of the weather and the deteriorating congestion of the roads.
That fledgling conversation ground to a halt each time a new course landed on the table. The hush that descended was half astounded, half reverent. There were startled gasps when the pÃ¢té chaud came around. Even something as mundane as an ice to clear the palate between the courses received solemn, undivided attention.
By the time Mme. Durant’s variation of the bombe glacée arrived on the table, layered, in deference to the weather, not with ice creams, but with vanilla custard, chestnut cream, and chocolate mousse, all the good breeding and restraint represented at Stuart’s table were barely enough to hold back his guests from launching themselves face-first into their desserts.
However, when I read this, I did tear up and unlike Verity, I didn’t for one minute doubt Stuart would come through like a champ.
"I understand everything," he said slowly. "And I accept it as a price I’m willing to pay."
"You do not understand." The dowager duchess stomped the floor with the walking stick. "Your wife, and consequently yourself, will be shunned everywhere. Doors will close in your face. Opportunities will flee before you. Your life, as you know it, will be finished. "
"No, madam, my life will have finally begun. I do not need the blessing of the Liberal establishment to practice law. I do not need the approval of Society to keep Fairleigh Park. And I will gladly be shunned on her behalf."
Tears came again, hot and sweet. This was how a prince slew dragons for his princess.
"You are mad, Mr. Somerset." The dowager duchess’s voice trembled.
"I have loved her from the moment I first saw her, madam. She has left me and I have left her. And now we are at last together, nothing, save death, will part us again. Not you. Not the Liberal establishment. Not the opinion of every last man, woman, and child in England." He bowed. "If you will excuse me, I’ve been away from her far too long this day already."
For that I’m willing to accept that this is a Cinderella story and a little more fable than possible reality, that the Dowager intends to resurrect her niece from the grave, that the world will happily welcome said Lady back into the bosom of High Society and that Verity and Stuart expect people to eat off that dining room table after what they’ve done on it. B