Don’t be fooled by the title. While The Spice Merchant’s Wife by Charlotte Betts is indeed about a wife, and she happens to be married to a merchant, spices play a minor role in the novel. Instead, the story of Katherine Finche, a woman who marries a wealthy merchant for both convenience and to escape the cruelty of her Aunt Mercy, is a tale of regret, loss, determination, deception, exploitation, lust and love.
Set during Restoration London, spices may be absent in the sense I know I was anticipating, but that doesn’t mean the novel lacks spice – on the contrary, in the figure of Kate, it abounds.
Opening on the eve of the Great Fire of London in 1666, anyone who knows their history understands the excitement felt by the Finche family as a long-awaited cargo and investment comes into port and is unloaded into the warehouses, will be short-lived. As their lives and livelihood go up in smoke, we follow the misfortune that besets Kate and her rather dullard, moody and frankly unpleasant husband, Robert and his parents.
What unfolds as Kate and Robert struggle to reclaim some of what they lost – most of all, their dignity, as their former social standing has also turned to ash, is a wonderful and at times, tragic account of not only what happened to the hundred thousand or so people and businesses displaced by the devastation, but the rebuilding of London after the fire and the opportunities for fortunes to be made and lost and usually at others’ expense.
Just as Kate and Robert look set to endure a lifetime of repaying debt and thus misery, a prosperous man enters their life, promising them riches, position and his patronage. Falling under his spell, Robert grasps the opportunity, but Kate is not so enchanted and regards their new benefactor with grave suspicion. When some of the projects he’s responsible for begin to deteriorate and collapse, and those who would accuse him of shoddy practices conveniently turn up dead or disappear, Kate can no longer look away.
Along with the wicked people come the good. This is also the story about a blind and brilliant perfumier, Gabriel Harte, and the kindness and generosity of his family as well as an exploration of his talents. Kate, and thus the reader, comes to “see” London and people through Gabriel’s other senses – above all, his sense of smell.
When fate brings Kate into the Harte’s sphere, she finds herself seeing things in a new and unexpected way. But when the man who once promised to help her husband now sets his sights upon destroying her, Kate has no choice but to either prove her suspicions and seek justive for those this man has ruined and killed or run for her life…
At first, I wasn’t certain I was going to enjoy this book. Yes, the title was misleading and, while I loathed Robert to the point I could barely read a scene he was in, there were times I didn’t like Kate much. Her responses to situations had too modern a tone or didn’t fit the character being created for the reader. I also found the villain almost vaudevillian. Then, I read in the Author’s Note that he was actually based on a real person! Albeit, I am sure, coloured more brightly for narrative purposes. But, as the story continued, I grew to understand Kate and like her and the moral ambiguity some of her choices create. I also began to realise that this was a novel about wives – the choices they make, what they endured and enjoyed; how contingent they were on men for everything, including their happiness.
Like the book, Kate is not perfect, but she still makes a great foil for exploring post-fire London and two very different occupations: building and perfume. The descriptions of the scents are really lovely.
Betts recreates the period effortlessly and certainly, her descriptions of the fire and the losses of the people are well-portrayed, especially through the lens of the once-arrogant Finches.
Overall, I really enjoyed this and recommend it for lovers of history, romance, and suspense.