Setting: London and environs, late Victorian
Main characters: Verity Durant, chef, not a virgin, with fraught history, and Stuart Somerset, also of complex origins, now barrister and MP with sterling political prospects. Both in their mid to late thirties.
Plot: Straightforward romance plot (no spies, blackmail, violence, paranormal elements).
Distinctive features: Heroine is a chef, late Victorian setting, nonlinear plot, abundance of characters with shady parentage
My take in brief: Great writing, gripping, very romantic elements, including secondary romance, unusual features, such as detailed descriptions of food and use of food and appetite as metaphors for love and desire, but some plot and characterization problems
Word on the Web: So far, mostly positive with one outlier. Stay tuned for more reviews.
Jayne, Dear Author, Grade: B
Jennie, Dear Author, Grade: A
SB Sarah, Smart Bitches, B
Rachel Potter, AAR, Grade: C+
Lawson, TGTBTU, Grade: B+
Mary Benn, TRR, Grade: 5 hearts
Ana, Book Smugglers, 7
Elaine, Romance Reviews Today, Ungraded: positive
Jessica at Romance Novels, Ungraded: positive
Nancy Davis, Romance Reader at Heart, Ungraded: positive
Sakura of DOOM, Oyce, mostly positive
Discussion thread about Delicious at AAR
Sherry Thomas’s first novel, Private Arrangements, was published in early 2008 with a lot of fan fare. It got great reviews pretty much across the board, and enjoys a 4 star rating on Amazon.com after almost 50 reader reviews. (As an aside, I wonder what it is about certain books that makes them hotly anticipated and widely discussed. Is it the publisher? The editor? The author’s profile on the blogosphere?)
I loved Private Arrangements. It’s on my keeper shelf. So I was super excited to get my copy of Delicious in the mail earlier this week. And, just like with PA, I read it in a 24 hour period.
Thomas’s novels take place towards the end of the nineteenth century, in the late Victorian period, which sets them apart from the typical historical romance, which tends to be set earlier – often in the Regency (or even late Georgian) period. It’s neat to read about the Irish Question, trains, gas hot water heaters and lamps, the rise of the middle class, etc..
Another distinctive feature of Thomas’s writing is that it is nonlinear. Both PA and Delicious begin at a point well after the hero and heroine have met, but something has gone wrong and both couples are estranged. It is through flashbacks that we are brought up to speed. Some readers complained about this in PA, and I’m not sure why. I think the flashbacks were handled very well: I was never confused in either book about where I was in the story. Nor do I think they were superfluous: the present estrangement is made more poignant by comparison to the sweetness of the couples’ initial encounters. (Another aside: and aren’t we all used to nonlinear narratives by now? Anybody ever read Virginia Woolf? Pulp Fiction came out in 1994, Trainspotting (the film) in 1996. Heck, even J. K Rowling got in on the act with her pensieve in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince in 2005.)
Many reviewers have praised Thomas’s beautiful writing, and I agree. Here’s one passage that broke my heart, when the heroine first sees the hero after years of separation:
“Some lovers were fortunate enough to grow old together. They’d grown old apart. She did not think him any less handsome. She only wished that she’d been there when the first line on his face had appeared, so that she could have stroked and kissed and cherished it.” (p. 129)
Thomas uses some very arcane words, such as ‘medlar’ and ‘philtrum’, and some others that, while not exactly arcane, are unusual, such as ‘impecunious’ and ‘scabrous’. And, just to vex geeks like me, I think she even makes up words (‘slurriness’) which nevertheless seem to work. (The hero actually refers to his ‘testes’, a first, I think, in my romance novel reading). In my opinion, Thomas’s vocabulary always serves the story, but readers of PA who were annoyed that Thomas used ‘clavicle’ will be glad to know that ‘collarbone’ makes an appearance in Delicious.
Thomas specializes in unjust estrangement, in heartbreaking near misses. In a less talented writer, I would call them Big Misunderstandings. But Big Misunderstandings can only happen to stupid or shallow characters, and Thomas’s heroes and heroines are always complex (not just flawed, but put together in interesting ways) and very human.
Stuart has had to fight – physically, emotionally, legally — for everything he has, and his identity and his life depends upon never making a misstep in the eyes of Society. Stuart’s ideas about the need to resist the bodily temptations Verity throws in his path (food and sex) in order to succeed were actually quite widely held at the time. Verity’s motives are tougher to grasp (she’s a gifted chef, but her status as a cook is so entwined with her losses that it’s never clear whether she likes it) but she’s a strong woman who owns her mistakes and is not afraid to take risks.
Now for the criticism. I have two bones to pick. One, when an author is going to keep her characters apart for most of the book, and put them at cross purposes for most of their scenes together, they need a very solid romantic foundation – otherwise, why wouldn’t the characters just give it up? I thought this was done beautifully in PA, but in Delicious, while I admit that Verity and Stuart’s meeting was romantic, sweet, and fun (they have an extended witty and ribald conversation about fairy tales) I was not convinced that their one night was enough to sustain a decade long infatuation.
And, apparently, neither was Stuart. The scene that knocked me right out of my reading reverie was in Chapter 17. Stuart declares his love for Verity, not realizing she is the “Cinderella” with whom he spent an enchanted evening years ago. He has never seen Verity’s face, and has never had anything resembling a normal conversation with her. Putting aside the rather unromantic notion that he has now fallen in love with two different women in the same book (I know they’re the same, but he doesn’t know that), on what basis could he possibly fall in love with his cook? (I get that she’s magic in the kitchen, but would he have fallen in love with his cook if he was a big Italian guy named Mario?)
Second, and this is a minor point, because I don’t care too much about historical accuracy (here’s hoping spousal unit doesn’t read this entry) there are a lot of illegitimate births in this novel. My understanding of Victorian England is that its laws on illegitimacy were incredibly unforgiving (even marriage of the parents couldn’t confer legitimacy), and that the social consequences for noble or middle class women who became pregnant out of wedlock were incredibly harsh. I’m not sure that the attitudes and actions of the characters reflected that historical reality as well as they might have.
One of the best things about Delicious is the secondary romance. Both PA and Delicious feature main characters who are engaged to be married, so something has to give for our hero and heroine to have their happily ever after. Rather than resorting to making the fiancés eeeeeeeevil, or offing them in convenient riding accidents, Thomas has, in both books, given us interesting and sympathetic characters in their own right. The secondary romance in Delicious – often a lot more fun than that between Verity and Stuart — features a long, flirting, metaphorical conversation about the sexuality of the secondary hero (reminiscent of the “snails and oysters” discussion between Laurence Olivier and a young Tony Curtis in Spartacus). (I cannot think of another historical romance that features homosexuality in this humorous yet understanding way. I think it’s terrific.)
Once I picked Delicious up, I couldn’t put it down, except to sleep, and do the necessary minimum amount of childcare to stay off the radar of Child Protective Services (kidding!). I think what draws me to Thomas’s books is the raw emotion she conveys so well that I can’t help but be drawn in, and stay in, until the end. This one’s going on my keeper shelf, right next to Private Arrangements … as soon as I get my butt in gear and alphabetize it by author.
Available at Amazon.com