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Complete Review: "Gourmet Rhapsody is something of a mystery-novel, as the protagonist plays detective, trying to summon up a memory of that lost flavor over the course of the novel, as time is running out."

Date: Aug 3 2009

       The gourmet of the title(s) is Pierre Arthens, who declares with the utmost confidence: "I am the greatest food critic in the world". Unfortunately, that no longer does him any good: his doctor has told him he has forty-eight hours to live and then his cardiac insufficiency will do him in. He is not too concerned about that, but he does have on final ambition: to recall the one taste that really mattered:

I know that this particular flavor is the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced.

       Unfortunately, the flavor and the food has slipped his mind -- slipped off the tip of his tongue, as it were -- and he now makes a last, desperate effort to recall it. He does so by going through the tastes of his life, as the book alternates short chapters between his reminiscences and the observations of those who know him -- his family, followers, even his cat, as well as a small alabaster statue.
       The action takes place in a house on Rue de Grenelle; among the characters who give testimony is the concierge there, Renée -- who will assume a much more prominent role in Barbery's bestselling follow-up, set in the same building, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
       Food is obviously central here, as the gourmet retraces meals and unique tastes he's found over the decades, and Barbery does the food-writing evocatively well. There's more to it, too, as the gourmet is a man who has failed his family -- and certainly his wife -- and now finds it is too late to change anything. Self-centered as he is, what is important to him in these dying hours is making a sort of peace with himself -- by retrieving that magical, lost taste -- rather than others.
       It is a very short novel, and Barbery offers quite a mix of moral and philosophical issues that he faced during his life -- and now, as he and others confront his mortality with the clock ticking very prominently in the background -- in the quick rotation of vignettes from his life, as seen by him (focused on the meals) and others (often focused on other aspects of his life).
       As one person suggests:

Food was just a pretext, perhaps even a way of escaping, of fleeing what his goldsmith's talent might bring to light: the exact tenor of his emotions, the harshness and suffering, and the failure, in the end ... Thus, where his genius might have enabled him to dissect for posterity and for himself the various feelings which were troubling him, he lost his way along secondary paths, convinced that he ought to say what was incidental, and not essential. Such a waste. Heartbreaking.

       Hence, appropriately enough, it will be heart-failure that does him in ..... And his final act is to retreat into food again -- the incidental (even as he has allowed it to become so central in his life).
       Gourmet Rhapsody is something of a mystery-novel, as the protagonist plays detective, trying to summon up a memory of that lost flavor over the course of the novel, as time is running out. He finds it, too, in the nick of time ..... There were only so many ways Barbery could go with this, and it does feel a bit forced, but there's sufficient satisfaction in this particular conclusion.
       Richly written -- but rarely overwritten (impressive enough with this sort of undertaking) --, Gourmet Rhapsody is an interesting sort of character study. It feels a bit thin -- and it is a very short novel -- but the variety is appealing, and the mix of humor, philosophy, and culinary delights make it an easily digestible little morsel.
       Certainly adequate, if not all that much more.

by M.A.Orthofer, 28 July 2009