In 1773, Kit Tyrone arrives at an Italian villa, looking for his missing sister. He knows she should be at the villa, but all he finds is a decaying feast, the sister's pet pug, and a mannequin dressed in her clothes holding one of his letters and a beautiful ruby. The story then jumps back six months and switches to the real main character, Biddy Leigh, as she describes the events leading up to the strange scene at the villa. Biddy is an under-cook at an English estate, and Kit's sister Carinna is her new mistress, who orders Biddy and a few others to accompany her to France and then to Italy "for her health." Along the way, Biddy records her travels in a book given to her by her ailing mentor and collects recipes. There's obviously an air of menace about the trip, which Biddy realizes all along but can't fully grasp until it's in hindsight. She matures greatly during her journey, from a young woman who only wants to marry her sweetheart into someone with larger views and ambitions. It's a slow and subtle growth, as Biddy takes on more and more responsibilities regarding the traveling party, and was well-done. I liked the love story (not the love story that the summary makes it out to be, however, which is a good thing; the real one is much better than the summary-hinted one could have been) and the slow buildup of tension, but there were still parts I didn't really like.
One of those parts was Mr. Loveday's chapters. Loveday is Carinna's slave, and while he's a friend and accomplice to Biddy, his chapters are mostly reminiscences about his home island somewhere in Indonesia, along with the events that led up to his capture and sale as a slave. While this was good background on the character, I felt like it could have been worked in better than Loveday just daydreaming all the time and not really doing anything else in his chapters; all of his action seems to be in Biddy's chapters, which makes his seem somewhat pointless. The other aspect I wasn't fond of is that, even though this is a sort of mystery (What happened at the villa?) it's not really a mystery you can solve. This is because of the way it's written--past tense, versus present tense--which I can appreciate, but if there's going to be a mystery, I like there to be at the least the possibility of solving it, even if I'm not usually successful in that pursuit. In this, there's no real clues along the way, just the build-up and climax put forward very matter-of-factly. There's also no real concern for Biddy, because even though some bad stuff happens to her, you know she's writing the story down after the fact, so she has to make it through.
Finally, the characterization of one of the supporting characters (the eventual love interest) bothered me. Originally, he's fascinated by Biddy and sees to view her as an equal, despite a perceived difference in their classes and an obvious difference in their abilities. But then, during the novel's denouement, that attitude completely vanishes and he turns into someone who expects Biddy to obey his every wish and not really do anything for herself. It seemed like a very abrupt about-face without any real cause, especially because he knew what had happened. If he had been like that the whole time, it would have been more bothersome as a love story but likely more historically accurate; instead, it just came off as awkward, and the man at the end seemed like a completely different person without any real cause, unlike Biddy's transformation (which definitely had cause).
I liked the inclusion of food as a marker for different events on the story, but at the end, I thought Biddy's musings on food and recipes turned a little too philosophical to read true, and the story probably could have ended just a couple of pages sooner without anything really being lost. Everything is neatly tied up in the end, without any loose ends dangling, which was nice; everything finally comes full-circle, and everything ultimately gets explained. Overall, I think this was a great book, and a very easy read despite its length. I'd definitely read others by this author, though they might be some time in coming since it seems like this is her first novel.
4 stars out of 5.