Sherry Thomas is a relatively recent entrant into the world of historical romance; her first published novel, Private Arrangements, I reviewed a mere year and a half ago, here. She’s a current resident of Texas, but she moved to the US from China at the age of thirteen and apparently had a taste for historical romance even then. This work is her second novel; she’s since published a third, entitled Not Quite a Husband. A fourth, called His at Night, is to be released next May. I believe that the secondary lead in Delicious and the lead in Not Quite a Husband are brothers, but it doesn’t seem to be necessary to read one before the other.
Verity Durand is the most famous — and infamous — chef in England. Famous, because her food makes angels weep and grown men slaver; infamous because, well, she had an affair with her last employer, Bertie Somerset. Of course, Mr. Somerset has since died and his younger half-brother, Stuart, has inherited the entire place, including Verity’s services — as a chef, of course. Stuart Somerset is a politician; originally a barrister, he’s now an MP and holds the ear of the Prime Minister; he works twenty-four hour days trying to get bills past. He rarely has time to eat, let alone enjoy his food. Oh, and he’s engaged to a Miss Lizzy Bessler. However, ten years ago, he had one amazing night with a lady he’s never seen since, despite searching. Only a totally crazy situation would throw them back together . . . wouldn’t it?
I keep forgetting that Sherry Thomas is about the best historical-romance writer out there. I continually read good-enough historical romance (see: unfortunate taste for Stephanie Laurens novels) where the men are homogenized to the point where they’re all heavily dominantly Alpha under all circumstances. The women, to match, are exactly feisty enough to be attractive but, of course, completely submissive in bed for absolutely no reason. The plots generally have some sort of random mystery thrown in just to provoke a confession of love at the point where either the hero or the heroine is about to die. This novel reminded me that there’s more than just that.
To start, her prose is on a level all its own. I can’t pinpoint the differences, but when I read it, I immediately knew the difference between ‘adequate’ and ‘good,’ or even ‘good’ and ‘exemplary.’ The book starts with a comparison to a Cinderella tale (pointing out that the narrator/author is self-aware) and then goes on to a description of a kitchen, which nonetheless kept me rapt. (For those interested, the opening can be found here.) Her structuring, with time jumps between 1882 and 1892 (1892 being ‘the present’ for the story), was quite well-orchestrated, and I never felt as if she left part of the story hanging unintentionally or improperly. The way she chose to unfold all the details of the story made it feel as if there was a real mystery (without the amateur sleuthing of the more recent Stephanie Laurens tales). While the ‘mystery’ had a lot of importance to the lovers involved, it didn’t have much impact on society or the greater world (even bringing a murderer to justice is an impact on society), and I felt it was the sort of ‘mystery’ plot that amplified the emotion, rather than just providing a convenient excuse for actions.
Her characters are — different. Yes, of course, there’s the requisite members of the nobility (duchesses and whatnot), but Bertie Somerset is merely a fairly well-off country gentleman (no title), and his brother is a barrister, having been born out of wedlock but later legitimized. (That’s not much of a spoiler.) Verity Durant has been a cook for years — an upper servant, sure, but that’s all. While we are talking about the late Victorian era — 1892, after all — I don’t particularly remember too many historical romances about almost ordinary people. (Although that’s a very big ‘almost.’) Also, Stuart is not terribly alpha male. Certainly he stands up for that in which he believes, but he’s, well, a nerd. I thought he was fantastic.
The story is very intensely emotional, but a smidge lighter than Private Arrangements. It isn’t all sweetness and light by any means; there are a lot of thorny patches on the way to the happily-ever-after. (Readers will, I trust, forgive my mixing of fairy tales.) The emotion, though, was another factor that kept my attention steadily in the story. Most romance novels manage to keep my interest, usually by the will-they-obviously-yes-but-when line of the emotion, but in this one, it wasn’t so much that as the sheer quantity and depth of the many different kinds of love shown in the story. Overall, I’d definitely recommend this to fans of historical romance, and those who haven’t read much but are willing to be convinced. Be warned, though: most of what you find won’t be nearly this good. 5/5 stars.