I bought this book at a clearance sale at my local library. The barcode is crossed out, but I like to imagine that if you take this book through the little gates at the entrance the alarm will still go off. Then I can tell myself I’ve actually stolen this book and that I have to hide it from other people, so my thievery won’t be found out. Also, if people find out I have this book they will try to steal it back from me to read its secrets. I’m imagining this story because Newmark’s story is about a mysterious book full of secrets everyone pursues: people steal, lie and kill to get their hands on the book. I’ve decided to review this book to show its contents are innocent. And if you want to read the book afterwards you can borrow it, but please don’t steal it.
The plot of this book is set in 1498 Venice. The protagonist is Luciano who is a teenage orphan living on the streets. One day he steals a pomegranate: an act seen by the head cook of the doge, the head of state, of Venice. He takes Luciano off the streets, feeds him and makes him his apprentice. A few weeks in his new life, rumours start to rise about a mysterious book somewhere in Venice. Nobody is sure what the secrets in the book are: is it a recipe for eternal life, how to make gold, the recipe for a love potion or does it contain secrets which will shake the balance of power in the city? The book seems to contain exactly whatever the one pursuing it desires most. Around the palace of the doge, where Luciano works, there are many intrigues and plots to get the book. This is intertwined with the struggle for power in Venice, especially because the old doge is dying. As a servant, Luciano sees many people pass through the chambers of the doge and he listens in on many incriminating conversations. The players in this game over power and ownership of the secrets in the book do not shrink away from murder.
After a while, it turns out that the cook called Ferraro is more than a kind man and a brilliant cook. He seems to be a key player in the game of power, although in a more subtle role. While Luciano and Ferraro’s friendship grows, Ferraro shares more and more secrets with Luciano. Secrets that reveal the role of Ferraro and the role of his cooking in the power game being played in the city. However, the question that isn’t answered for Luciano is how that all is connected with the mysterious book everybody keeps talking about. Meanwhile, Luciano is also struggling with elements of his past life on the streets. His friends demand of him to steal food for them and are slowly getting involved with his and his master’s secrets, although he isn’t sure whether he can trust his old friends. Also, Luciano is in love with a novice called Francesca. He has heard the book contains the recipe for a love potion, so he also has his own interest to find the book, unconvinced as he is to be able to win her heart on his own merits. Even though, his master Ferraro urges him to either forget about her or to win her heart on his own.
The best thing about this book is the writing style. It is written in such a way that it drags you in and won’t leave you alone until the book is finished. The first time I finished this book I couldn’t even tell you if the plot was good or not, because I was too busy recovering from the thrill of reading this book. The book has a good balance of action and character development. Luciano goes from a street boy who doesn’t know which direction to take in his life to finding a cause to fight for and to better himself. One of the things he does is learning how to read and educating himself. His growth is illustrated in a particularly beautiful scene near the end where Luciano has to travel alone for a long time. He is not excited about the new adventure in his life, but rather sad about everything that has happened and the friends he has lost. A chapter of his life is ending and his future is uncertain. Despite his sadness and fear he still goes on to execute the responsibility given to him by his master. Luciano has learned from his master Ferraro to be strong and to face whatever is necessary to lead a meaningful life with purpose and integrity. Newmark created vulnerable characters who felt real with their own doubts, goals and shortcomings.
Another great element in this book is the role of food. It feels as if food is the actual protagonist in this book. There are lengthy descriptions of the food characters eat and the dishes Ferraro prepares for the doge and his guests. First, I thought Elle Newmark just really liked food, but it soon becomes clear that food has a bigger role. Food is used to calm people down, to manipulate them and to steer the course of history and even has the potential to be dangerous when used wrongly. Ferraro choices his dishes in such a way as to manipulate the thoughts and decisions of everyone who eats them aided by ingredients from his mysterious garden. The other people working in the kitchen look with suspicion at his cooking because it is sinful and looks like magic. Luciano is fascinated by the power of his cooking though, and me and Luciano both suspect more than one of Ferraro’s secret ingredients are some kind of drugs. I like the role of food in this book. It gives the book a very original and distinctive element and it made me appreciate the food I ate weeks after finishing this book. Especially how Ferraro forces Luciano to eat a grape with full intention. To focus on the taste, texture and smell. At that moment Luciano truly learns how to taste food and his career as a cook apprentice can start. Newmark’s descriptions are so real that you grave the food the characters get to eat, and you can even smell the dishes while you read about them.
As with all historical novels, there is, of course, the question of historical accuracy. Newmark herself confesses in a postscript of the book that she made up some things in the book, such as a bridge, for the purpose of storytelling. Also, there is no proof whether all the dishes would have been possible in 1498, but she says it is plausible of all of them. I am not a historian at all, for that you need to turn to Jo or Thura, and maybe that has been a blessing for me reading this book. I read the book as it is: a glorious adventure full of intrigue, mysteries and descriptions of amazing food. I was not bogged down by questions of historical accuracy or finesse of the plot and that is also what Newmark says: she asks understanding from the readers for mistakes made because her main goal was to tell a great story and that is what she did. This book is a whole lot of fun and would certainly inspire everyone to go a bit further to learn cooking skills. -You never know when you need them to manipulate someone.
Mother’s kitchen award for all those times we ate food cooked with a precision that made us rich in feeling or ready to overthrow a government.
Elle Newmark, the book of unholy mischief (New York, 2007)
Bella G. Bear