Thursday, 7 March 2013

John Saturnall's Feast - Lawrence Norfolk

I quite liked posting the back cover blurb for Best of All Possible Worlds and I think I'm going to make that a regular thing. Here is the blurb for John Saturnall's Feast.

A beautiful, rich and sensuous historical novel, John Saturnall’s Feasttells the story of a young orphan who becomes a kitchen boy at a manor house, and rises through the ranks to become the greatest Cook of his generation. It is a story of food, star-crossed lovers, ancient myths and one boy’s rise from outcast to hero.

Orphaned when his mother dies of starvation, having been cast out of her village as a witch, John is taken in at the kitchens at Buckland Manor, where he quickly rises from kitchen-boy to Cook, and is known for his uniquely keen palate and natural cooking ability. However, he quickly gets on the wrong side of Lady Lucretia, the aristocratic daughter of the Lord of the Manor. In order to inherit the estate, Lucretia must wed, but her fiancé is an arrogant buffoon. When Lucretia takes on a vow of hunger until her father calls off her engagement to her insipid husband-to-be, it falls to John to try to cook her delicious foods that might tempt her to break her fast.

Reminiscent of Wolf Hall and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, John Saturnall’s Feast is a brilliant work and a delight for all the senses.

I had heard really good things about John Saturnall's Feast. A friend who's opinion I trust had read it and really enjoyed it. It sounded quite interesting and I love things set in English history. I was quite excited to read it.

The bits about John growing up I found very interesting and I was super curious about the ridiculously religious folk he and his mother lived with in the small village. I think those first few chapters were perhaps some of the strongest of the piece.

When John gets to the kitchens, though, I lost a bit of interest. To be honest, I don't really like reading about food. I just get incredibly bored. I suppose I should have thought of that before I started this book that is clearly about food but I thought it would be so beautifully written or interesting that I'd get carried away. Not to say that it isn't a good book or well written but it wasn't enough to keep me from skimming chunks.

To be honest, there was a lot that I liked (the mythology, the relationship between John and Lucretia, the characters of the other servants) but I feel like it wasn't enough to make the story truly spectacular. A lot of the plot was expected. Everything that was unique was wonderful. The mythology of the feast and of the witch and her lover was very well done. However, it's still a love story between a lowborn man and a highborn lady. It plays out like you expect. 

I guess what I'm saying is that I really liked the details and the odd historical anecdote (the chapter where the kitchen is at war is particularly well done) but the overall plot development felt a tad bit trite. I wish John's story was half as original as the world he lived in.

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