The Chocolate Maker’s Wife…
About the Book:
Australian author Karen Brooks rewrites women back into history with this sweeping, breathtakingly researched tale of 17th century London. Set against the backdrop of Restoration London, the plague and the Great Fire, this is a tale of cruelty, revenge, redemption, love and hope, and the sweet, sinister temptation of chocolate.
Damnation has never been so sweet…
When Rosamund Tomkins enters the world she is so different, with her darkling eyes and strange laughter, that the midwives are afraid, believing her a changeling. But Rosamund’s life is set to be anything but enchanted…
Born into poverty, brutalised and ignored by her family, it is only when she is married off to a nobleman that her life undergoes a wondrous transformation, as he recognises that Rosamund infuses magic she does not know she possesses into everything she touches.
Clever, quick and irrepressible, Rosamund soon becomes the darling of the haute ton, and presides over her luxurious chocolate house where the rich go to be seen and indulge in their favourite pastime, drinking the sweet and heady drink to which they’ve become oddly addicted.
But Rosamund stands on the brink of losing all she has worked so hard to achieve and will be forced to make a choice: walk away from all she knows and has grown to love with her soul intact, or make a deal with the devil?
‘Chocolate had seeped into her blood.’
As you all know by now, historical fiction is my best and favourite. I’ll read all sorts of genres within an historical setting that I’d not even crack a cover open for with a contemporary one. This year is already shaping up to be an incredible year for historical fiction. Two months in and I’ve read so many great titles with even more beckoning from the pile on the bedroom floor. Even though I like all historical fiction, I do have some favourite eras and one of them is Restoration England, the mid to late 1600s. The Chocolate Maker’s Wife is set in the years between 1662 and 1667. For those of you who are not familiar with the era, the author neatly sums up everything I love about it in her author note in the back of the book:
‘England in the 1660s and the Restoration, was a naughty, violent, politically and religiously fraught, dangerous, cruel, exhilarating, and incredibly sensual time. Poverty and wealth existed side by side, resentments, racism and xenophobia ran deep, and so did plots. Increasingly literate people stretched their religious and other rights and sought to be free of the constraints the King imposed on them in a variety of ways. Arts and theatre flourished as did the sciences. But war was omnipresent and fear of a return to the chaos of the Civil War dominated many people’s minds and motivations. Women began to make their presence felt in science, literature, arts and business — so much so, as one historian has noted, the rights and liberties enjoyed by the women of the Restoration would not be seen again until the suffragette movement of the twentieth century.’ – Author Note
Karen Brooks has encapsulated all of those things in The Chocolate Maker’s Wife. She writes with an intimacy that draws you right into the novel itself, and with such atmosphere! This is a novel firmly anchored by its history, with an eclectic mix of fictional and non-fictional characters. The year 1666 features heavily, and for good reason. It was the year that opened with the Great Plague of London, which was followed closely by the Great Fire of London, all occurring against the backdrop of the second Anglo-Dutch civil war. In the Winter of 1665, Halley’s Comet appeared brightly in the sky, and it was viewed as some as a harbinger of doom, particularly given that the following year contained the foreboding triple six ‘1666′, which seemed to herald the Apocalypse. Given the whole plague, fire and war events that unfolded, you’d probably have been forgiven for jumping on the bandwagon of hysteria that was travelling around back then. It’s really such a remarkable period of history though. The Great Fire was a catastrophe of Biblical proportions that came on the heels of significant loss from plague. Approximately three quarters of the city burned. That London recovered is rather incredible. Oh, and also, this point in history is regarded as the birth of journalism as we know it – no wonder everyone thought the world was ending. The paparazzi were in town, whipping everyone into a frenzy of ‘too much information’. Life must have been so much quieter in the dark ages. I mentioned above how atmospheric this novel is. Here’s an excellent example of this, as Karen puts her characters smack bang into the middle of the Great Fire:
‘As the afternoon wore on, it was evident that, despite all the reassurances, London was burning.
By mid-afternoon there were no more visitors and the light was dimmed by choking clouds of Stygian smoke. Scintillas of ash and molten sparks pirouetted in the hot wind, landing on eaves, the cobbles, people’s clothing, threatening to spark. Birds had long taken wing, dogs ran barking up the street, chasing those fleeing, while cats slinked into dark voids. Instead of rushing to help put out the flames raging by the river, people were intent on looking to their own wellbeing —and, Rosamund noted wryly as cart after cart bumped down the road, their material goods as well.
The sky was a furious tempest, as if demons writhed in an eternal struggle, raining glowing embers and ash upon the city, indifferent to the frightened mortals below. The world had been turned upside down and hell was now above — where heaven existed, God only knew.
When St Paul’s finally erupted in flames at nine of the clock — all the books stored in its cellars providing marvellous fuel for the hungry fire, ruining all but a few booksellers in the city, and the lead on its roof raining down into a river of mellifluent marvel through the streets — she watched without shifting, even when the stones erupted like canon, shooting up into the air and landing with loud cracks.’
As well weaving history through her narrative with absolute perfection, Karen has also crafted some pretty excellent characters. We see the whole gamut of human behaviours within this story, from the most loyal through to the most depraved. And each and every one of them holds their own. Of course, Rosamund, our main character, shines brightest of all. For what she had endured from the age of ten years through to eighteen, she was an incredibly brave, intelligent and insightful young woman, with a capacity for empathy and kindness that was amplified by her own suffering. I really loved her and her character growth throughout the novel was profound. She had a way of being able to see right through a situation and evaluate it with logic rather than emotion. That’s not to say she wasn’t fuelled by her emotions, she was, but she was able to intelligently break a situation down and act from there. She was highly resourceful. A born survivor.
‘Whatever his schemes, the very notion he was buying a bride was madness. Utterly preposterous. Rosamund sank down onto the stool and perched her hat on her head. It was also bloody marvellous.’
She was also the object of desire for many men, her beauty at times a curse for her just as much as an asset. There is a rough and winding road to love for Rosamund but it’s all the more sweet when she finally lands where she is meant to be.
‘For that’s what this woman of endless surprises, resilience and kindness had done — this fine chocolate maker had taken the raw and bitter ingredients that made up who he was and remixed them until he was altogether more palatable.’
And this brings me to the chocolate. Oh, the decadent luxury of it!
‘It’s this aspect of chocolate I believe will allow our establishment to cast others into the shade. In due course, naturally.’ He smiled. ‘While coffee clears the mind, facilitates conversation and allows insights, chocolate is for those who seek pleasure . It’s the ultimate temptation: Eve’s apple in this overgrown city garden. I intend that every man and woman will desire to bite into its flesh and drink its juices.’
Chocolate was only just in its infancy in London at this time, at the beginning of its introduction and it had a sinful reputation, which made it all the more sought after. Rosamunde begins her life in London as the chocolate maker’s wife, drawing the customers into what is best described as a cafe for men only, dedicated to chocolate drinking. But Rosamunde takes her role as hostess one step further, as her love of chocolate grows, so does her knack for combining herbs and additives into the drinks, resulting in ‘bowls of chocolate magic’ that have the patrons flocking to her door.
‘Ah, he didn’t say you were an expert, signora, but an aficionado — they are different. An aficionado is a devotee, someone with a natural gift for understanding and sharing the essence of something. Through the eyes of the aficionado, others come to appreciate and experience the joys and divine mysteries of a thing. An expert is someone with great knowledge, but who is not always able to persuade others to share it. Where one includes all who come in their compass, the other excludes. You, Lady Rosamund, are the former.’
This novel is nothing short of delicious. It’s infused with chocolate, the descriptions so vivid you can taste them. With all of that history that I mentioned above, the excellent characterisation, the chocolate making, some pertinent social issues under the microscope, as well as a family mystery and some pretty dark skeletons rattling around in the manor closets, I am truly in awe at the scope and cohesion of this novel. It’s remarkable, rather political in a very clever way, a brilliant historical fiction that has jumped right to the top of my favourite books ever list. Needless to say, I recommend it highly!
‘If there was one thing the plague had taught her, it was that people needed the familiar in times of crisis. To cling to hope, they needed to know all was not lost —‘all’ being even the simplest things. And what was chocolate if not the most complex of simple things?’
Thanks is extended to Harlequin Australia via NetGalley for providing me with a copy of The Chocolate Maker’s Wife for review.
About the Author:
Karen Brooks is the author of eleven books, an academic of more than twenty years’ experience, a newspaper columnist and social commentator, and has appeared regularly on national TV and radio. Before turning to academia, she was an army officer for five years, and prior to that dabbled in acting. She lives in Hobart, Tasmania, in a beautiful stone house with its own marvellous history. When she’s not writing, she’s helping her husband Stephen in his brewery, Captain Bligh’s Ale and Cider, or cooking for family and friends, travelling, cuddling and walking her dogs, stroking her cats, or curled up with a great book and dreaming of more stories.
The Chocolate Maker’s Wife
Published by HQ Fiction – AU
Released on 18th February 2019