Before I even started to read I was intrigued by the textured cover, but it was the gorgeous colour flyleaves that really caught my eye. They depicted a rich, succulent gastronomic feast. And once I began reading, that feeling continued....
In 1498 Venice, a young street beggar, Luciano, is plucked from poverty, to apprentice with palace chef Ferrero. Secrets and deceit run rampant in the palace. Rumours abound about a mysterious book that may contain the secrets and formulas of ancient sorcerers and alchemists. All of Venice - young, old, rich and poor - desire this book. Luciano is not immune from this desire. Ferrero seems to know more about this book and the palace goings on than a chef would......
Elle Newmark's writing is rich and sensual in descriptions, sights, smells and flavours. The simple act of chopping an onion becomes an experience.
"Look at the naked onion, Luciano. She's newly stripped and no one but you has ever seen her before. Her colors are virgin white tinged with spring green. Handle her gently. For the first cut, slice cleanly down the center and behold what you've exposed. Lay open the intimate center and admire the perfect nests within nests."
The story is alternately told from Luciano's point of view as a youngster and as a man. The meat of the story is slowly revealed with tantalizing foreshadowing.
"My Venetian lust to know everything stoked the bonfire that eventually consumed us all."
The search for the mysterious book is the backbone of this tale, but for me it was the descriptions of the food and environs that made me read passages twice. Newmark draws on her own travels for inspiration.
Although the chef's reasons for drawing Luciano into his confidence are explained, I had to suspend disbelief a little bit as I thought it happened too quickly for something so important.
Elle has some discussion questions for book clubs available on her website and is willing to schedule conference calls as well. Historical fiction fans will enjoy this interesting mix of the past and cuisine.
Thanks to Atria Books for the review copy.