The Marriage Test
The Marriage Test is the third in a series of comedic medieval novels about young ladies from the fictional Convent of the Brides of Virtue and their adventures in pursuit of marriage and love. This third installment is my favorite of the series, though it’s still not as good as my favorite books by Krahn, The Perfect Mistress and The Last Bachelor.
In the vein of movies such as Like Water for Chocolate, Big Night, and Chocolat, The Marriage Test is predicated on the somewhat fanciful but likable notion that food is a sensual inducement to high spirits, sharpened senses, common sense, and, above all, love. This book takes seriously the belief that the path to a man’s heart is truly through the stomach (and the nose), and weaves an enjoyable, if predictable, fairytale around that notion.
At the tender age of twenty, Julia of Childress is already the head cook at the Convent of the Brides of Virtue, a medieval halfway house for unwanted daughters of the nobility and a few sisters of the cloth. Abandoned at the convent many years before as a young girl, Julia took refuge in the kitchens and soon discovered her true calling was not to God, but to the gastronomic gods. There is nothing she enjoys more than creating a splendid repast for her sisterhood and the occasional passersby or visitors. Her creativity in the kitchen is unmatched and the descriptions of some of her dishes literally made my mouth water. Julia lives to cook, and she dreams of someday escaping the convent and finding a husband and kitchen to call her own. Since the convent is known for “selling” brides to wealthy noblemen, she should be in the right place. The only problem is that the canny abbess knows a good thing when she eats it and isn’t in any hurry to marry Julia off.
Griffin, the Count of Grandaise has a unique problem: His super-olfactory abilities – a trial, indeed, in the smelly Middle Ages – allow him to smell levels of scent and traces of odors left behind long ago. His nose rivals the best tracking hound, but he’s unable to control or weed out unpleasant smells, with the sobering result that he is easily sickened and often unable to stomach his meals. He resorts to wearing a metal band across his nose to prevent smells (any smells) from interfering with his daily life. Of course, in the process he cuts himself off from the most sensitive and powerful sense he possesses, and from a vital part of his self.
Two of Griffin’s vassals stumble upon the fabulous cooking at the convent when they seek shelter there one foul evening. They realize the woman responsible for those meals is the solution to the Count’s troubles. (Well, at least one of them. There’s not much anyone can do about the unwanted marriage contract to his sworn enemy’s daughter that has been ordered by the king.) They convince their lord to steal into the convent garden on alms day to taste the glorious cooking.
What transpires next is both a physical and verbal farce, with more than a few outrageous scenes of ecstatic transportation due to Julia’s terrific food. Carried away by his joy at finding food that not only doesn’t make him ill, but both tastes and smells amazing, Griffin offers to buy the services of the cook from the convent. The abbess drives a hard bargain, with a reluctant duke pressed into service as witness and arbitrator. The end result is that Julia becomes the nominal property of the Count of Grandaise for one year, during which she is supposed to train someone to cook the way she can. She will then be returned to the convent still in her maiden state, take her vows, and become head cook once again. While she’s happy to leave the convent, the idea of returning doesn’t please Julia at all, and she resolves to use her time outside of the convent walls to find a husband.
Once at Grandaise, Griffin intends to ignore Julia, wary of both her temperament (which is sweet, but peppery – no demure wench here) and his unwilling awareness of her. Unfortunately for him, Julia’s not the type to be ignored, and she challenges Griffin’s assumptions about women and cooks (she’s young, pretty, and not stout). In the meantime, despite his resistance, her incredible cooking and bossy, positive nature gradually encourage him to loosen the hold he has on his sense of smell, creating an unforeseen problem for them both when her culinary skills prove to have a powerful effect on his libido as well.
The Marriage Test is an enjoyable book. Alternately sweet, silly, funny, and kind of sad, it plays many different plot cards along the way, including some predictable devices which result in several unplanned marriages with major political consequences. Normally, predictable plotting gets on my nerves, but somehow The Marriage Test skimmed over the surface of those nerves and left me smiling. I suppose it’s because the familiar can comfort and soothe, as is evidenced in this book when Julia discovers some of Griffin’s childhood favorite recipes and earns his undying gratitude.
Griffin and Julia make a fun couple. They are quite different from each other, yet they possess key similarities that make their attraction for each other believable and far more than physical. The positive and expansive result of Julia’s advent into Griffin’s life made me smile. I was happy that this poor man who had lived for so long with his “defect” was now able to enjoy the benefits of his super sense of smell and pleased for Julia that after years of loneliness made bearable only through her artistry in the kitchen, she had finally found someone who wanted only her.
With amiable lead and supporting characters, and enjoyable plotting with little in the way of surprise, The Marriage Test is a fun fable with which to while away the hours on a rainy day. Just be warned, reading the descriptions of all the fabulous food might make you hungry!