As Arthens recollects memorable meals and favorite foods, including grilled sardines, freshly baked bread, orange sorbet, and mayonnaise, he dismisses taste after taste as "not the one I seek now at the gates of death." Arthens's musings are full of appreciations of simple foods, like this homage to a tomato eaten straight from the garden:
The raw tomato, devoured in the garden when freshly picked, is a horn of abundance of simple sensations, a radiating rush in one's mouth that brings with it every pleasure. The resistance of the skin—slightly taut, just enough; the luscious yield of the tissues, their seed-filled liqueur oozing to the corners of one's lips, and that one wipes away without any fear of staining one's fingers; this plump little globe unleashing a flood of nature inside us: a tomato, an adventure.Tag-teaming with Arthens's memories are chapters told from the various perspectives of Arthens's family (including pets), his doctor, his lovers, and even the concierge Renée (a major character in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Barbery's bestselling second novel). These chapters shed light on Arthens's complicated character and also raise some interesting moral and philosophical questions. Unfortunately, each satellite character gets only one brief chapter, and the end result is insubstantial and unsatisfying.
Arthens's disjointed recollections add to this novel's problem of substance (or, rather, lack thereof). Arthens's desire to identify one final flavor feels contrived, and his reminiscences are food-focused at the expense of developing any sort of cohesive narrative. As an appreciation of food, Gourmet Rhapsody achieves more success than it does as a novel but, ultimately, it fails to live up to its full potential. Arthens's baroque descriptions lack naturalness and charm, and his voice often feels too studied and haughty. If you want to read something by Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a safer bet. If you're interested in food writing, your time is better spent with a master of that genre: for example, M.F.K. Fisher.