How awesome is this book? Let me count the ways.
First, the barebones: Jeremey’s in love with Chloe, but he hasn’t told her he’s actually the Duke, and basically owns her village. Chloe doesn’t want to admit she’s in love with Jeremy. She knows he’s rich – he’s known as “Posh Jim,” after all – and if she could see a future where she’s more than a dalliance to him (doubtful), she certainly can’t see one where she can be with him without losing who she is.
This is the stuff from which a fine romantic comedy can be spun, and this is a fine romantic comedy. Chloe and Jeremy’s verbal sparring is delightful. Milan’s sentence-level craft is superb; the village of Wedgeford is vividly portrayed.
But there’s so much more going on that enriches and adds depth to this novel. Perhaps like the complexity (forgive me) of a really good sauce.
Because that’s another thread: Chloe and her father are planning to launch a sauce empire. There’s just one little problem to amp up the comic drama: it’s the eve of launch day, and they are still calling it “Unnamed Sauce.”
Why is the launch day so important? Because Wedgeford is host to an annual village-wide sporting event, loosely based on the Atherstone Ball Game (not, as thought at first, on the similar Kirkwall Ba’) which draws the biggest crowds of the year (and provides more opportunities for hijinks, not to mention a large and entertaining background cast).
Adding depth (but not weighing down either the romance, or the sauce-launching plot): Chloe and Jeremy are both of Chinese extraction, which challenges their lives, in late Victorian England, in different ways. “Unnamed Sauce” emerges as a metaphor for diaspora (and the future sauce business represents sweet revenge on cultural imperialism, not to mention predatory business practices). Wedgeford, owing to an accident of changing trade routes, is an exuberantly diverse community; and Milan suggests powerfully that the existence of such communities at that time would be virtually inevitable. The evolution of Chloe’s relationship with her father hinges, in part, on aspects of Chinese languages that are subtle, but I felt that I could follow them (without being talked down to).
It’s a very rich and satisfying mixture indeed, and I look forward to what’s next for Wedgeford and its denizens.
Note: I was provided an advance reading copy with the expectation that I would write a review.