A weak mystery and problematic history made Above the Bay of Angels my most difficult read of 2020 (so far). While I’ve loved previous novels by Rhys Bowen, this book was an absolute struggle to get through.
Bella (Isabella) Waverly’s childhood is idyllic. Her father is an aristocrat estranged from his family, but he’s landed on his feet, working as the manager of guest relations at the Savoy. “His ability to speak good French and mingle with crowned heads had made him popular at the hotel” until “the demon drink” overcame him. The family’s fall from grace is fast and furious and with her father unemployed, they quickly lose their home and all the little luxuries that had made life so delightful. Pulled from school, teenaged Bella is forced to work as a housemaid to make up for her father’s lack of salary. She hates having to rise at five to light the stove, despises carrying scuttles of coal and doesn’t like Mr. and Mrs. Tilley, her employers. In fact, the only thing she appreciates about the job is the food. The Tilleys eat very well, as do the staff, and Bella is able to take leftovers to her family on her afternoon off. Her appreciation for the cuisine extends to the preparation of it and she takes every opportunity to help in the kitchen until she is eventually promoted to assistant cook. She excels at all her lessons but her specialty is pastries. The mistress of the house is completely delighted with her, taking special joy in the fact that she has someone linked to the aristocracy working in her kitchen. She often has Bella serve the tea when she has guests over, gratified that she can tell her callers that a young lady of good family is serving them. Bella’s refined speech and elegant manners add a gentility to the home that the nouveau riche owners lack.
As her skills grow, Bella considers leaving, but Mrs. Tilley learns of her plans and advises her that she will never receive a reference from them; without that recommendation Bella won’t be hired elsewhere. Trapped, both by her employers’ cruelty and her family situation, Bella is despondently resigned to working as an apprentice cook for the foreseeable future, until fate intervenes. She is about to splurge on afternoon tea on her day off when a young woman is run over by an omnibus before her eyes. Bella races over to offer what assistance she can to the innocent victim, even though it is clear the lady is mortally injured. In deep distress, the girl pleads with Bella to go to the palace and gives her an envelope to take. Wanting to know what she is walking into, Bella reads the letter and learns it is an invitation to interview for an under-cook position at Buckingham Palace that day. Bella sees a chance to escape her own dreary lot in life and seizes this unexpected opportunity, presenting herself at the palace as Helen Barton, elated when she is offered the position but frightened as well. Pretending to be someone else, especially when employed by the government, is dangerous and the situation becomes even more perilous when Helen’s brother shows up and blackmails her. Luck intervenes once again; the Queen’s pastry chef suffers an injury just as her majesty’s retinue is to leave for Nice. Bella is able to go in his place, and hopes this means she is leaving her problems behind but of course, that’s not how life - or mystery novels - works. Count Wilhelm, a member of the party dies, supposedly from eatinh something Bella cooked. Now she must solve the mystery of what really happened while desperately hiding a secret that could get her sent to jail - or see her hanged.
What I’ve just described is the first seventy percent of the book. Lest you be concerned that I’ve given away the whole story line, let me assure you I haven’t. It is also, with a bit of added detail, the information presented in the blurb on the back of the book, so you could find most of this out simply by reading the material provided by the publisher. The impetus of the plot, of Bella becoming a cook for the queen, takes up only the first two chapters of the story, the mystery takes up only the last two chapters. The novel is mostly historical fiction, with details about the queen’s household, food preferences and the lives of the denizens of the palace taking up much of its 323 pages. The rest of the tale is about Bella’s thoughts and feelings about kitchen life and palace life. The strength of the story, for the historical reader, is the avid attention given to the details of the Victorian era, especially the gastronomical aspects of the period.
However, historical detail is also one of the problems I had with the book. The author presents the attitudes of the royal servants and household towards Abdul Karim, the queen’s munshi, very accurately; however the text presents him as involved with terrorists and being dismissed by the Queen as a result. The articles I read in Wikipedia, Vanity Fair, Smithsonian magazine, The Telegraph, Time and BBC News all agreed that he was a chief mourner at her funeral, and that it was her son Edward VII who unceremoniously sacked Abdul Karim as soon as he could afterwards. While the author says in her Historical Note at the end of the book that “Abdul Karim, his association with the leader of the Muslim League and his final fall from grace are factual” I could find absolutely nothing on the internet that supported her depiction of the events and unfortunately, the review copy I read did not have footnotes I could reference to clarify where the author got her information. I found that discrepancy, especially since it was in regard to the only character of color in the text, disturbing. Regardless, it wasn’t just the events which troubled me, but the manner in which they were presented. The character was written as such a villain and cad that the lack of nuance seemed harshly prejudicial, especially since he played a minor, completely unnecessary role in the narrative. The sole gay character in the text is also written in much the same way, as a bully and a brute with no redeeming value.
The second major problem I had was with the mystery. It is resolved so simply, with the guilty party essentially confessing after minor questioning, that its presence in the text was confusing. It does cause Bella to address a major issue but that could have been done very easily in another, more logical manner.
Finally, the romance was completely awkward. Bella falls in love after several very desultory conversations with a man whom she spends barely any time with. The page space from the mystery should definitely have been devoted to this aspect of the story, since the time that was allotted to it was far too sparse.
I had been looking forward to reading Above the Bay of Angels so it is with complete sorrow that I report that it was completely disappointing.
Buy it at: Amazon
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