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Chicago Sun-Times: "Gourmet Rhapsody will ultimately linger on your palate and make you hungry for more."

Date: Sep 14 2009

Don’t read Muriel Barbery’s latest novel if you’re hungry, especially if you savor French cuisine and the sense of the good life that all of France seems to enjoy at the table.

Gourmet Rhapsody, Barbery’s latest novel to be translated into English by the graceful Alison Anderson, is a sensual feast celebrating tastes, memory and impressionistic summertime repasts.

In this story, Pierre Athens, who describes himself as “the greatest food critic in the world,” is dying. Although he’s encircled by a loving wife, family and the comforts of home, Monsieur Athens is tormented by the recollection of a food he needs to taste again before he dies. But he can’t recall what it was: meat, fish, vegetables, bread. He go through other possibilities: toast, mayonnaise, whiskey, ice cream. He’s a tortured soul.

But we readers benefit from these mental meanderings as they become an elegiac salute, an appreciation of smells and sounds and, above all, tastes. Read, for instance, Athens’ description of eating a tomato: “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 corner 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.”

Try reading that without your mouth watering.

His memories of summers at the sea in Morocco (Barbery grew up in Casablanca) also evoke vivid sensations: “The rituals of holidays, immutable sensations, the taste of salt at the corner of one’s lips, shriveled fingertips, hot, dry skin, sticky hair still dripping slightly down one’s neck, shortness of breath, what a pleasure it was, how easy it was.”

But, alas, the adult Athens is a stunted soul, cruel to his children and to strangers, indifferent to his wife, lacking in any human connection. The chapters in this book alternate between food memories and then interior monologues of an assortment of living creatures (human and animal) as they watch Athens die, mostly without pity. Barbery, a former philosophy teacher, returns to one of her favorite topics: the idea of how we should best live our lives. In her wonderful earlier novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, she also explored some of the eternal questions of living and dying, of finding meaning and connection.

Gourmet Rhapsody lacks the breadth of Hedgehog, however. Where HedgehogGourmet Rhapsody feels more like a series of exquisite small plates, delivered by a disdainful waiter and cooked by an uncaring hand.

Poor Monsieur Athens finally comes to a realization at the moment of death. It’s a realization that might seem as unsatisfying as some kind of mass-produced pastry. Nevertheless, Gourmet Rhapsody will ultimately linger on your palate and make you hungry for more.