Jennifer Palmer has read crime fiction since her teenage years & enjoys reviewing within the many sub-genres that now exist; as a historian who lectures on real life historical mysteries she particularly appreciates historical cime fiction.
Two women dominate this story set in the late 18th century, Mary Jebb, convict and cook, and her mistress, the newly married Grace Moore; they are the centre of a frightening tale of love, deception and revenge enlivened by recipes; a style that Fay Weldon describes as culinary gothic.
In alternating chapters the back stories of the two women, Mary Jebb / Peg Blissett and Grace Croxon [née Moore] are built up. Each chapter is prefaced by an 18th century recipe for a dish or sweet that is referred to in the chapter. Mary from Manchester has been sentenced to be hanged but at the last moment is reprieved from the gallows, but faces incarceration. Grace grows up in Lancashire with a mother who teaches her to draw and paint. Grace's skill is considerable. Both women face some hardships but those of Mary are of a different ilk to those faced by the timid Grace. Indeed Grace eventually discovers that her grandmother has left her land that makes her a valuable marriage partner.
They meet when Grace is manipulated into employing Mary (who is using the false name of Peg Blissett) as her cook and housekeeper at Delafosse Hall in a remote village. The Hall is a highly Gothic creation - partly ruinous with secret passages and romantically wild woodland around it. Grace has married handsome Michael Croxon who has chosen this remote home near to the land on which he wishes to build a mill. Peg's previous experiences in the Antipodes are gradually and sensationally revealed to us. The dark and complex mysteries that permeate the tale are various; the characters of the women affected are well delineated so that the reader cares about their intertwined fates. The males are rather more shadowy creations, perhaps because we view them only through the eyes of Grace and Mary / Peg.
The conclusion reached after the twists and turns is a satisfying one. The significance of the title of the book becomes clear very quickly, as the penny hearts feature lucidly in the tale.