Book Review for “The Chef’s Secret” by Crystal King.
In the 1500s in Italy, there lived a man, Bartolomeo Scappi, who is known to this day as one of Europe’s most creative and talented chefs. Scappi, who died in 1577, rose from being a humble cook to a master who devised elaborate dishes and meals for kings and popes, leaving behind a famous, multi-volume cookbook as an eternal legacy to his art, although little is known of his personal life. The first volume of his book was lovingly dedicated to his nephew Giovanni, and according to author Crystal King, the way he wrote it sounded more like a father writing for his son, than an uncle for his nephew. This must have triggered King’s using this backdrop for this new biographical, historical, fiction novel, which is filled with so many intrigues and deceptions, I’m surprised that King didn’t use a double plural for the title!
Another thing that King included in the backdrop of this novel was the famous comet of 1577-8, which was so intensely visible, that records of its approximate 74 days in the skies stretched from Ireland to Turkey! It is this point upon which I base my main niggle with this book. See, Scappi died not long after Easter of 1577, which of course landed in the spring of that year – April to be precise. However, the comet wasn’t visible before October of that same year. When I asked King why she would change history in this manner, her reasoning was solid. She couldn’t change the date of Scappi’s death, so she lengthened and moved forward the comet so she could use it as a type of metaphor in the narrative. Although that is understandable – literary license and all that – I have to admit that every time I read a reference to the comet, I still got a touch annoyed. However, I’m not sure how King could have fixed this. The only thing I can think of would have been that King shift the majority of the action by six months, but that wouldn’t make much sense, either. Furthermore, since the observations of the comet added something special to the narrative, this was a dilemma I couldn’t reconcile myself with fully. Hence my inability to give this book a full five stars.
Before I go further, I should say that the above was probably partially my own fault. I mean, if I hadn’t googled that damned comet, I would never have known about this problem with the book. But my curiosity got the better of me, and well… there you go! I should also mention that there’s one other reason why I’m not giving this book a full five stars. That is that I found myself rushing through this book. Now that should be a good thing, because it should have meant I really wanted to know how the problems resolved themselves. However, while that was partially true, I must admit that there were times I rushed through because I felt that King was getting just a bit too bogged down in the details, and I didn’t want to feel the pace slowing during those passages. These mostly had to do with historical facts and some of the background information about certain figures.
The food parts, on the other hand… well, those passages made this into such a luscious book to read, that I also found myself going back over some of them. Seriously, some of these banquets that King described and some of the dishes that Scappi prepared were literally (and yes, I do mean that) mouthwateringly amazing. Add to this how King worked all of this into building very well-rounded characters, and gaining our sympathy for them, despite how disgustingly cruel and ruthless some of them could be, was nothing short of mind-boggling. With this, King mixes in an almost staggering amount of conspiracies and duplicities, blended with heavy handfuls of romantic passion (including a few fairly steamy sex scenes that thankfully, fall well short of pornography), all while building up to the boil of the conclusion, which will also (at least partially) surprise you. I also have to give King credit for writing the parts narrated by Giovanni in first person. This jarred me a touch at first, but I was quickly relieved of any problem with a woman writing in a man’s voice, since King never made me feel that Giovanni was anything but masculine (mind you, he was well in touch with his feminine side, but one would never expect any less from an artist).
To tell the truth, I was expecting nothing less than this from King, after enjoying her first novel, “Feast of Sorrow” so much. I just wish that thing with the comet didn’t bother me, because I’m sure I would have upped my rating a bit (probably by half a star) if it wasn’t for that. Despite this, I’m certain that this novel is going to be a huge hit with historical fiction lovers, especially those who like culinary and biographical fiction thrown into the recipe. That’s why I’m going to warmly recommend this novel with a strong, brightly shining four stars out of five.
Touchstone/Atria Books released “The Chef’s Secret” by Crystal King on February 12, 2019. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary) and Alibris, as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.