Although I missed “The Spice Merchant’s Wife” by Charlotte Betts when it came out in January of 2013, it is well worth the read at any time. Categorized in the historical genre, it is also an historical romance. Moreover, there is a good deal of mystery in it as well.
The story opens in 1666 just before the great London fire and goes on for a few years until 1670. The setting is primarily London but, at times, also includes some rural locations as well and all within horse riding distance of London.
The main characters are Kate Finche and her husband Robert and Gabriel Harte and his wife Jane. Of course, there are many other secondary and important characters but these four take us through the entire book alive or dead.
Kate meets Gabriel right after the story opens in Chapter One. She sees that he is about to be run down by a coach being driven wildly down the street. Kate is momentarily confused because she can see that the young man is about to be run down and likely killed but seems frozen to the spot in the middle of the road.
However, just in time, Kate manages to push him out-of-the-way. It is when she is helping him get himself together that she realizes the reason he didn’t know what was about to happen was because he was blind. At the time of this awkward meeting, both are married to other people and they frequently meet socially. Gabriel is a famous perfumer and always seems to know when Kate is nearby.
In Chapter 3, we experience the London fire, which went on for days because of a horrendous wind. Kate and thousands of others end up in a field, where they find out they and Robert’s parents have lost everything.
What is different about this book is that the author doesn’t just gloss over the consequences of the fire. She takes us through every single day and what happened to those, like the Finche’s, who lost everything. Robert Finche’s parents, for example, end up in debtors’ prison, where his father dies, because their successful spice warehouse was burned to the ground. While Gabriel did not lose his home and studio, he did lose all the landmarks he used to get around and which everyone, previously, took for granted.
Obviously, there was no such thing as fire insurance in those days, and the hardship must have been incredible. In the book, we meet young women and girls left destitute, who had no choice but to sell their bodies as there simply weren’t any jobs until the city was rebuilt. Kate was able to do contract sewing, which of course, was all done by hand.
Yes, Kate and Gabriel do eventually realize they love each other, but even with both their spouses deceased, as with everything else in Kate’s life, happy ever after may not be possible. Readers will have to read the book to find out why.
I would highly recommend this book. Yes, it is unsettling in places, particularly when we are faced with the role of women in the 17th century and what they had to do to survive. There is also a murder and an attempt at murder. But, there are upbeat moments as well and Betts does have some surprises that will make you smile.
My rating for this novel is 4 1/2 stars out of 5.
Published by Piatkus — First printed in January 2013, Reprinted in Paperback January 2014 (381 pages)