The Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery

This week has been pleasant but uneventful. And true, it is only halfway over. I’m acquiring new books at a dangerous pace, putting in more orders at my local library while ignoring the pile of books that I own- which is growing- and then picking up stray books that catch my eye. I was at a school in my dad’s district today, waiting in the library while he was at a meeting, and I picked up a new one that my little sister found. Now I need to finish that one in time to give it to her on Sunday! It looks quick, though, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

And I actually have nothing exciting to put in this space. Nothing’s changed, nothing’s happened. This is what you get when I write two reviews in one week!

The Gourmet Rhapsody? Why, that sounds like… is it… yes! It is! A foodie book! So here it is: I, Brigid Chapin, am a serious foodie. I love to cook and to eat, dinners and desserts, I love to read about food and cooking and I love challenging recipes. To me, the culinary arts are exactly that: an art! I can express myself and de-stress through cooking just as easily (perhaps easier) than through a painting or origami model. You might have already gotten this impression, or I might have already stated it outright (I don’t remember), but now you know for sure: I am a foodie, and there will be many foodie reviews in my future. And I look forward to them!

This particular book is written by the highly-esteemed (by me, at least) Muriel Barbery, who wrote another book I’ve already reviewed on this site- The Elegance of the Hedgehog. This book is about a dying food critic, Pierre Arthens, who lives in the Rue de Grenelle- the same hotel, featuring some of the same characters, as in Elegance. In fact, the two books ran on a parallel timeline- perhaps a quarter of the way through Elegance, Monsieur Arthens’ dies in the apartment below Paloma; when his wife leaves the hotel, the room is free for Monsier Ozu to move in. It adds a level of thrill for me to read of Pierre on his deathbead and know that Paloma is overhead, recording her Profound Thoughts.

Pierre, dying, is well into his sixties (it gave his exact age at one point but those are the kinds of details I don’t hang on to well- and it wasn’t entirely relevant) and dying of heart failure, and with his entire life surrounding him (not literally- he doesn’t want to see his kids) he spends his dying hours trying to recall a particular flavor, that which he tasted at one point in his life and has been unable to forget, which he now craves with a primal lust. The book is structured such that every other chapter is narrated by Pierre as he recalls some delicacy he’s sampled in his life. Some are dishes prepared by master chefs- sushi prepared by one of the most esteemed sushi chefs in the world; others are the essence of simplicity- a picnic he stumbled upon while trying to find a different address, where he was invited to stay and be fed. Buttered toast, whiskey, mayonnaise, fresh tomatoes- many more complex dishes prepared with careful affection by amateurs and bachelors. He sifts through the finest meals he’s ever experienced, trying to home in on that one flavor. That one item.

One thing that’s very notable is that the dishes weren’t all memorable for being delicious- some of the meals he remembers were not extravagant or enticing. On several occasions it’s the company that makes the meal. Pierre is a food critic who realizes that it’s not food alone which causes a delectable meal.

One thing that can’t not be mentioned is the brilliance of the prose. Muriel Barbery wrote this book originally in French, and it was translated into English by Alison Anderson, and it is a brilliant, brilliant translation. I can’t imagine that a single element of the original text could possibly have been lost from this packed, powerful, deep novel. It takes concentration to read this book, or else you could miss something without even realizing it. The paragraphs are made of little things, like recipes- ingredients that form into the whole. Since so much of the book is spent describing dishes, and there’s actually no action in the book at all, you could miss a few sentences without being thrown completely off track. But if you miss just a few sentences, then you won’t understand what made this morsel so unforgettable, and that’s the entire point of the book!

On top of that, Pierre was a world-renowned critic- he could only have become so by being both brilliant and perceptive. When he bites into a chunk of bread (the chapter on bread was positively mouth-watering), he doesn’t know just that it tastes good- he knows what it is, what combination of the senses it is that causes bread to be such a delight. And that’s what he articulates throughout his chapters, and that’s what’s completely irresistible to a foodie like myself.

The chapters in between Pierre’s reminiscences are occupied by the people whom he’s affected in his life- and very few have a positive word to say. There are opinions dropped by his children and wife, his nephew, the staff who have worked in his home, his mistress, even his cat! Oh, and Renee- one of the main characters of Elegance. I was truly hoping that Paloma would show up, just to drop a few paragraphs, but no such luck. Together, these voices form a second picture of Pierre: one of a man to whom food was the most important thing. His wife and children fell by the wayside (the former continued to love him; the latter despised him). He would go off on long trips away and return with nary a word to his abandoned family. Many of the people, after expounding on his lack of virtues for a page or two, would proclaim, “Let the bastard die,” or something along those lines. None wept for his departure (except perhaps his cat, whom I found to be a very interesting narrator).

Pierre didn’t give two shakes what people thought of him on his deathbed, he just wanted that flavor.

I, personally, really enjoyed this book. It’s probably a much more delightful read if you’re a foodie- actually, I don’t think you could read it if you weren’t a foodie. I borrowed my copy from my dad, who told me that he’s tried to read it more than once. It’s a heavy book, and you have to really enjoy reading about food if you want any hope of getting through it.

Published in: on March 30, 2011 at 7:43 pm  Comments (5)  
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