Book Review for “The Chocolate Maker’s Wife” by Karen Brooks.
This is the story of Rosamund, a woman who was both literally and figuratively pulled out of a gutter only to rise up as Lady Blithman, the wife of Sir Everard Blithman, who was on the verge of opening a unique chocolate house in London in the 1660s. This time included a devastating plague and London’s Great Fire of 1666, not to mention two long-lasting comets. Add to this the return to the throne of the decadent Charles II after a bloody civil war, his unending palace intrigues and selfish excesses, an extended war abroad, and a society rife with extreme poverty, xenophobia, slavery, and religious intolerance (among other things). With this, the coffee and chocolate houses of the time were the only places to distribute, read, and discuss the outlawed writings of “correspondents” (the precursor to todays journalists), whose criticism of the government and the King were labeled as “false news” and could get their authors jailed. Woven into this is Rosamund’s story, which is one of unshakable determination, and an uncanny talent for making delicious bowls of chocolate, both of which were sorely needed to survive during such an era of upheavals, both historically and within Brooks’ story of the Blithman family.
Yes, I’ll admit it, I asked for this novel because of the title, and because it was historical fiction. If that makes me shallow, so be it; but come on, you must admit that the idea of a chocolate house during such a tumultuous time is fascinating. I already knew a good deal about the history of chocolate, and so I also knew that this particular time was at the very start of one of the turning points in its popularity. Having someone turn this into an historical fiction novel was practically like having one of my idols at the center of a biographical novel. I couldn’t resist, and from the onset, Brooks’ enchanting, evocative, and era-perfect prose put me on an enthralling roller-coaster ride of emotions and events, flavored by the “food of the gods,” with the delectable aroma of romance along the way.
Sounds amazing, right? Well, it is for the most part. However, despite the marvelous writing, and the astounding amount of research layered almost flawlessly into the text, there are several reasons why I can’t give this novel a full five stars. Mostly, it wouldn’t be overt hyperbole to call this novel an epic, with its length of over 600 pages. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, I could clearly see how this book could have been broken into two sequential novels, with one hell of a cliffhanger at the end of the first one. With this, I should say that while both books would have been excellent reads, the second one might not have been as riveting as the first one. Mind you, the sections of battling both plague and Great Fire come during the second half of the book, and that gives lots of external action there, but the personal and familial obstacles that Rosamund has to overcome during the first half were, for me, much more of a draw than these two external ones. Which is to say that the there were parts of the second half of this book that seemed a bit slow for me.
While that was the biggest one, there were other things that prevented me from giving this novel five stars. One was that I found that there was a bit too much angst between Rosamund and Matthew, the two main protagonists who are involved in the romantic pieces of this book. Furthermore, there were a few mysteries in this book that I figured out very early on in the book, but which were only officially revealed near the end of the novel. That might not be a problem for other readers, but the intelligence that Brooks built into these characters made me feel that it wasn’t totally believable that they hadn’t figured these things out much sooner. Also, there’s always a problem with too much historical information working its way into the story that can detract from the plot. While Brooks mostly stepped up to that fine line without crossing it, there were a couple of times when the story edged just a touch over it (see above about parts that felt a bit slow).
That said, there’s a whole lot to like in this book, not the least of which were the luscious and delectable descriptions of the chocolate and what additives they put into these scrumptious drinks. Now, we’re not talking about the type of stuff you get nowadays, but the real, original chocolate drink that starts with taking the roasted beans, grinding them into a cake and then dissolving it into steaming water to make something that’s akin to a slightly thinned hot pudding. The details here were to die for (and I would like to try out some of the added herbs and spices suggested here in my own chocolate creations)! Furthermore, Rosamund herself was a delightful main character, into whom Brooks injected no small amount of humor, which lightened up the narrative in just the right spots.
Finally, I must also say that the author’s notes are very extensive, but worthwhile reading, because through them we learn much more about the real and fictitious characters here. One piece of information included here made me further wonder that had Brooks turned this into two novels, she could have made this into a trilogy by continuing the story but focusing one of the minor, but real-life female characters that appeared in the second half of this novel. I know I would have wanted to read that book. So, for all this, I think I’ll give this novel a healthy four out of five stars and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a rousing historical, women’s fiction novel (even if you don’t like chocolate). Bon Appetite!
William Morrow-Harper Collins will release “The Chocolate Maker’s Wife” by Karen Brooks on August 20, 2019. This book is/will be available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), 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 Edelweiss.
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