Book Review: John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk (DNF)

John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence NorfolkRating: Did Not Finish (no rating)

Number of pages: 416

First published: 2012

I got this book: from Grove/Atlantic, Inc. via Netgalley (ebook)

Genre: historical fiction

John Saturnal’s Feast: What it is about

From Netgalley: “A beautiful, rich, and sensuous historical novel, John Saturnall’s Feasttells the story of a young orphan who becomes a kitchen boy at a manor house and rises through the ranks to become the greatest cook of his generation. It is a story of food, star-crossed lovers, ancient myths, and one boy’s rise from outcast to hero.

It is the early-seventeenth century and John Saturnall is a young boy grow­ing up in the village of Buckland. He is bullied by other children, who claim that his mother is a witch. When many of the children in the village become sick, John’s mother is blamed, and she and her son are chased out of the village. They move to a forest, where it is said a witch called Buccla once grew a legend­ary garden. Giving what little she can forage to her son, John’s mother soon dies of starvation, but sees to it that John is taken in at the Buckland Manor house, where he begins working in the kitchen.

At the manor, John’s keen palate and natural cooking ability allow him to quickly rise from kitchen boy to cook. However, he soon gets on the wrong side of Lady Lucretia, the aristocratic daughter of the lord of the manor. In order to inherit the estate, Lucretia must wed, but her fiancé is an arrogant buffoon whose face Lucretia thinks resembles a water parsnip. When Lucretia takes a vow of fasting until her father calls off her engagement, it falls on John to try to cook her delicious food that might tempt her to break her fast. As John serves meals to Lucretia, an illicit attraction grows between the pair, but fate is conspiring against them. Lucretia’s betrothal cannot be undone, and soon the household is thrown into chaos as Cromwell’s Roundheads go to war with the loyalist Cavaliers and the English Civil War begins.

Reminiscent of Wolf Hall, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and works by David Mitchell and Peter Carey, John Saturnall’s Feast is a brilliant work by a writer at the top of his powers, and a delight for all the senses.”

John Saturnal’s Feast: What I thought

I read, many years ago, Lemprière’s Dictionary by this author. I remember enjoying the book so I was keen to try this new book. But I found it really hard to get into the story. In fact, after 100 pages I still wasn’t interested in John and his story, so I gave up.

The story switched between John living in a village with his mother, being bullied by the other children as his mother is suspected of being a witch, and a journey by cart at a later time, where John is being brought to the local manor house, in order to get a job there.

I found the story of John and his mother very confusing. I didn’t understand half of what I was reading. Now I’m the first to admit I’m not always a careful reader, but I wasn’t sure whether there was more to be read between the lines, or whether it was left vague on purpose. It was especially the story about the witch Buccla that I found hard to follow.

Other things I probably should have understood: why was John’s mother first considered a witch, then not, and then again was? And I didn’t quite follow what the story was with the two guys that were taking John to the manor house (a journey of several days).

The story felt a little supernatural, but probably wasn’t. I would have loved to find out more about John as a cook in the manor house, but since the first 100 pages didn’t grab me, I decided to stop reading.

Have you read this book?

Did you enjoy it?


About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

18 Responses to Book Review: John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk (DNF)

  1. Chinoiseries says:

    How disappointing that it wasn’t quite the read you expected it to be. The cover and description are promising, but if the story itself is confusing (and paranormal-ish)…

  2. Kristen M. says:

    Ahh, Lawrence Norfolk. Until recently, The Pope’s Rhinoceros was the book that had sat unread longest on my shelves (probably about 15 years). I tried a couple of times to start it but just couldn’t get very far. I finally gave in recently and sold my copy. Now it seems that I probably won’t try anything else by this author either. It makes me a little sad to say that, especially because I really liked the premise of TPR and of this one, but I guess I just don’t get along with his style.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Kristen, *The Pope’s Rhinoceros* never appealed to me so I skipped it. But this book seemed very interesting. And maybe it is, but I just didn’t want to read any further.

  3. What a disappointment after such a promising blurb and cover…

  4. Suzanne says:

    The premise of this novel sounds interesting, it is too bad it couldn’t live up to the potential.

  5. Susan Tunis says:


    You made the right call. I’ve been reading this book for weeks and am pages from the end. God, it’s been a slog! And I had such high hopes for this one. It had a lot of buzz.

    Well, you’ve inspired me. I should get those last pages read today and finally move on.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Susan, that’s interesting to read. Why did you feel you had to continue? I guess it grabbed you a bit more than it did me. Finish it and find yourself a nice and easy read!

      • Susan Tunis says:

        Oh, I’m one of those people that finishes almost every single book I start. It’s a sickness. Plus, I owe a review on it.

        Anyway, I don’t think you should worry too much about the pages you didn’t finish. You cut your losses. 🙂

      • Leeswammes says:

        Susan, I have no qualms about not finishing a book, but I will read about 100 pages, otherwise I don’t know I’m qualified to write a review of it. Yes, I do write the review anyway, but only about those first 100 pages, and my explanation of why I didn’t read on. Some people might pick up the book for the exact reasons that I didn’t read on. It happens. 🙂

  6. Helen says:

    I had exactly the same problems with this book – I couldn’t follow what was happening and I also gave up after about 100 pages. It’s disappointing because it had sounded so fascinating!

  7. parrish says:

    Am I right in guessing the name relates to the Roman festival?

    • Leeswammes says:

      I can’t say, Gary. John Saturnall is the name of the main character and there is talk of Feasts which seemed to be mainly held by witches, if I understood right (but as I mention, I didn’t understand all of the book).

  8. It looks as though we had different problems with this book. I understood what was going on (mainly becaise the blurb gives away the entire plot) but I just didn’t care about any of the characters. At least we are still sharing our book taste. 🙂

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