A renown Parisian food critic, the greatest alive, is on his deathbed. He’s lived a life of eating, where food mattered more than the people around him, and in his last hours he strives to find comfort in that passion by tracing his memories back to the truest taste of his life, in an attempt to experience it again before he’s gone.
This is presented as a series of vignettes, short scenes from his life. Half of the chapters are from his point of view as he scours his memories for that taste he can’t quite recall, a defining bite of food from his past. The other half, every other chapter, are each from a new character’s point of view as they describe their own memories and relationships with the man. These characters include, but are not limited to, his family, past loves, house staff, and the pet dog.
Through these memories, both his own and the others’, we quickly discover how awful a person he is, how neglectful he was as a father and a husband, and how much of a bully he was to nearly everyone around him. His life was about his work and the power that came with it, the power to crush or advance a restaurant with a single review. Most of the memories others have of him are quite negative, although not all, and it’s an interesting look at the complexity of life-long relationships and how one man will affect a variety of people throughout his life, in both insignificant and major ways, but it’s handled in a lighthearted and funny manner.
I personally really enjoy reading about nasty people. Maybe that reflects badly on me, but there’s something about the freedom of expression of being a complete douchenozzle that is just fun, heartbreaking, shocking, and often hilarious to read. I don’t like to be around assholes in real life, but they’re a blast on the page.
[…] for I only ever knew how to spoil my own children — spoil in the strictest sense of the term. I caused them to rot and decompose, those three children who emerged from my wife’s entrails, gifts I had negligently given to her in exchange for her decorative wifely abnegation – terrible gifts, when I think about it today, for what are children other than the monstrous excrescences of our own selves, pitiful substitutes for our unfulfilled desires? For the likes of me – people, in other words, who already have something which gives them pleasure in life – children are worthy of interest only when they finally leave home and become something other than one’s own daughters or sons. I do not love them. I have never loved them, and I feel no remorse on that account. If they expend all their energy hating me with all their strength, that is no concern of mine; the only paternity that I might lay claim to is that of my own oeuvre. And the buried flavor that I cannot find is beginning to make me doubt even that.
I picked this up mainly because I love reading about food, and I was not disappointed in that regard. Barbery writes vividly about the tastes, textures, and experiences of eating, and while it definitely borders on, and sometimes casually shuffles past, the line of self-indulgence with prose so purple it could have hung in Prince’s closet, it will almost certainly hit the spot if you’re in the right mood.
True sashimi is not so much bitten into as allowed to melt on the tongue. It calls for slow, supple chewing, not to bring about a change in the nature of the food but merely to allow one to savor its airy, satiny texture. Yes, it is like a fabric: sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.
As a whole, I found the narrative disjointed, and it took me nearly half the book to find the story’s rhythm. Once it clicked, I started to really enjoy myself, but it sounds like her later book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, is where her storytelling really comes together. I’m still deciding whether or not I’ll read that.