Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery (a review)

2.5 out of 5: In Gourmet Rhapsody, Muriel Barbery's first novel (though her second to be translated into English), internationally-renowned food critic Monsieur Pierre Arthens is on his deathbed. Before he dies, however, Arthens must identify one final flavor: "A forgotten flavor, lodged in my deepest self, and which has surfaced at the twilight of my life as the only truth ever told during that lifetime—or the only true thing ever accomplished."

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.


Unknown said...

It does sound like a tough concept to turn into a meaningful story. Thanks for the review - I'll be passing on this one.

Zibilee said...

I am sorry to hear that this book was disappointing. I had seen it on a display table at the book store the other day, and had been wondering about it. It hasn't gotten as much press as Hedgehog, so I have been unable to get an idea of what people thought. Thanks for the honest opinion on this one.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Sorry this one was not better for you. I have the Elegance of a Hedgehog. Don't think I'll read this one.

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