Private Arrangements

by Sherry Thomas
(Bantam, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 978-0-440-24432-5
Readers who are worried that Sherry Thomas is a one-book wonder should be assured. If anything, her second novel tops her outstanding debut.

Simply put, Delicious is a very clever retelling of the Cinderella story, complete with scullery maids and wicked stepmothers. (It took me a while to figure out who the fairy godmother was, but she too is there.) Even highly refined palates depend on simple and traditional recipes. The magic lies in how you serve them up. And Delicious is very magical indeed!

Verity Durant has a reputation for divine cuisine and scandalous living: she had a torrid affair with Bertie Somerset, her aristocratic employer. When it turned sour, she considered joining forces with Stuart, his illegitimate and estranged half-brother, to pursue revenge. Instead of an ally in mischief, she found true love. For several convincing reasons, Verity made a noble sacrifice. She returned to Bertie's kitchens (but not bed) and left Stuart with no clue to her real identity.

Ten years later, Stuart is on the verge of becoming an important late Victorian political figure. He has finally given up the search for his missing Cinderella and proposes to Lizzy Bessler, a much younger woman he respects and likes.

Then, Bertie dies, and Stuart inherits the family estate and its legendary French cook. Little does he realize that Cinderella is literally under his nose and all over his taste buds. For Verity has decided the abstemious and dedicated reformer deserves to savor pleasure. She tantalizes him with succulent dishes and seduces him with tempting sights and smells, but denies him the gratification of meeting her in person.

In the meantime, Lizzy Bessler is trying hard not to indulge in her cravings for William Marsden, Stuart's secretary. By the time the two couples sort themselves out, the reader will have nourished themselves on surprises and emotions.

As in her previous book, Thomas recognizes that the measure of good characters and characterization lies in their flaws. Everyone, even the walk-on roles and bit parts, have glaring imperfections: Stuart is self-denying and Verity pig-headed, while William is devious, and Lizzie bossy and self-obsessed. They all triumph because of and not in spite of these flaws. As a result they are realistic and thoroughly likeable.

Verity's and Stuart's relation to Bertie is a case in point. It would have been easy to reduce him to a profligate and pleasure-seeking villain. But as they slowly consider the reasons for his actions, their own shortcomings become apparent. The final result is to endear all three even more.

Thomas demonstrates the mastery of a Gault Millau award winner in her carefully structured story. She balances different plot lines and weaves past and present to perfection. By withholding information until the right moment she teases our appetite for more and more.

The secret to good cooking lies in quality ingredients, and the language here is pitch perfect. Thomas excels as much at witty conversation as she does at lyrical and entrancing descriptions. The details on food and taste are particularly outstanding: I would never have thought I could be enthralled for more than two pages.

Last but not least, Thomas recognizes that dining can be a highly sensual and erotic experience. This is only one reason why this novel is so incredibly spicy!

Delicious just about says it all: Sherry Thomas's second novel is a multi-course banquet of delectable story-telling, scrumptious characters, and delightful verbal treats.

--Mary Benn

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