Bed of Spices is very much not your run-of-the-mill historical romance novel. That starts with the setting, which is not Regency England but Strassburg during the Plague, continues with the protagonists, namely a Christian daughter of a local noble and a Jewish apprentice physician, and ends with the plot, which reads not at all like a Romance story set against a historic background but more like a historical novel with a Romantic love story at its centre. So much so in fact that at times I even doubted whether heroine and hero would ever make it to their Happily Ever After or whether it would all end in tears and tragedy. I do not think it’s much of a spoiler to say that they get each other in the end (after all, this is a Romance, even though a rather unusual – but very good – one), although many of the secondary characters do not get that lucky – anything else would have been very unlikely considering the period the novel takes place in. Samuel does not shy away from having bad things happen to her characters, and is unflinching of her depiction of anti-Judaism and pogroms, not glossing over the misery and suffering Jews had to endure.
In contrast to the harsh historical setting the love story between Fredrica and Solomon is sweet and touching – reading their wedding scene had me grab for tissues on the train. It is also shown and developed in a very plausible manner: From their initial attraction and the way they get to gradually know and appreciate each other, through their struggles against prejudice, their parents and their own conscience to the final fulfillment and consummation of their love, things never seem forced or implausible and the reader (this one, anyway) never ceases to feel with and for them.
That latter bit is certainly to no small part due to Barbara Samuel being an excellent writer – her prose, lyrical without turning purple, paints a vivid picture of medieval life and is always evocative, whether she describes the beauty of nature, the bustle of city life or the tenderness of young lovers. There are some nice structural touches as well, like the various parallels and contrasts between Rica’s and Solomon’s families, and overall it’s a wonderful, heartwarming book that has become one of my favourite Romance novels.