Book Review for “The Language of Food” by Annabel Abbs.
Summary: “England 1837. Victorian London is awash with exciting new ingredients from spices to exotic fruits, but Eliza Acton has no desire to spend her days in the kitchen. Determined to be a poet and shamed by the suggestion she write a cookery book instead, she at first refuses to even consider the task. But then her father is forced to flee the country for bankruptcy, shaming the family while leaving them in genteel poverty. As a woman, Eliza has few options, so she methodically collects recipes while teaching herself the mysteries of the kitchen. And to her surprise, she discovers she is not only talented at cooking—she loves it. To assist her, she hires seventeen-year-old Ann Kirby, the impoverished daughter of a war-injured father and a mother losing her grip on reality. Under Eliza’s tutelage, Ann learns about poetry, cookery, and love, while unravelling a mystery in her mistress’s past. Through the art of food, Eliza and Ann develop an unusual friendship and break the mold of traditional cookbooks by adding elegant descriptions and ingredient lists, that are still used today. Told in alternate voices, this is an amazing novel of female friendship, the ensuring struggle for freedom, the quiet joy of cookery, and the place of food in creativity all while bringing Eliza Acton out of the archives and back into the public eye.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, England; Other Categories: Novel, Biographical, Culinary.
I do love culinary fiction, yes, I really do! And there’s so few of them out there, I really wish there were more. The fact that this is also women’s biographical fiction, as well really drew me to this book. Now, originally, I tried to get the ARC of this book when it was released under the other title “Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen” but I never received approval. After reading a few reviews on other book blogs (under both title names), I decided I just had to read this, and so I went out and bought my own copy. Now, as you can see, it really is very pretty so even if I didn’t enjoy it, at least it would look good on my shelf. Thankfully, the cover wasn’t the only good thing about this novel.
As it notes in the summary, this story is told from two, alternating points of view. First from Eliza’s and then from Ann’s. From what I can see from the author’s notes, while there was some information about the real Eliza Acton, there wasn’t as much as one might have hoped. This, of course, gave Abbs a good amount of leeway to develop Eliza into a well-rounded character. Since Ann was a figment of Abbs’ imagination, she was able to go whole hog with her, and make her into whatever or whomever she wanted, in order to become a counterpoint for Eliza, who could also enhance Eliza’s efforts. This becomes a kind of duet between the two of them, that works both in harmony and discord, throughout the story. That also means that we get to see both their strengths and their flaws, making them a very fascinating duo. The down side here is that they seemed a touch too alike, and their voices sometimes melded together.
Obviously, a good culinary fiction work must be highly descriptive, for us to not only see what is happening, but to also attempt to smell and taste what our characters are experiencing. Abbs writing style here is necessarily on the poetic side, and that works precisely as it should for such a novel. Certainly, the fact that Acton was a poet first, also came into the equation, and I expected the lyricism from Eliza’s parts of the story. Admittedly, I did start drooling over some of the descriptions of some of the dishes, while others made me wince or even shudder in disgust (but hey, as they say, on matters of taste). All told, I think Abbs did an excellent job with describing how some of these dishes came to be, and how attached these two women were in discovering new ways to prepare old favorites.
With all this praise, I do have some criticism. In particular, I think that Abbs gave a touch too much poetry to Ann’s voice, especially considering her very humble background. I think that this was the main reason why sometimes I felt that their similarities sometimes were to the detriment of the need for two separate, individual voices. Thankfully, these little confusions only happened a handful of times, and the chapter titles did help, when it did happen. Finally, while I came to care for both Ann and Eliza, they were still a bit aloof for me, and I didn’t love them wholeheartedly. I did, however, love reading their stories, and I enjoyed reading this book a great deal. That’s why I’m very warmly recommending it, and I think giving it four and a half stars out of five is the perfect rating. (Plus, it looks SO pretty on my shelf!)
Simon & Schuster released “The Language of Food” by Annabel Abbs on February 3, 2022 (however, William Morrow released this as “Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen” on November 16, 2021). This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Foyles, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (both with free worldwide delivery), Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Kobo US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.
This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: New Release Challenge (#22) (because the version I read was released in 2022, so yeah, I’m counting it), Historical Fiction Reading Challenge (#19).