Shelf Awareness: "The Last Banquet is shocking, at times verging on disgusting, but always compelling."
Date: Sep 13 2013
As Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Jonathan Grimwood is a well-known author of fantasy and science fiction. Set against the backdrop of Enlightenment France, his first mainstream novel, The Last Banquet, is shocking, at times verging on disgusting, but always compelling.
We meet Grimwood's picaresque hero, Jean-Marie d'Aumout, at the age of five, sitting on a dung heap eating beetles. His parents are dead of starvation, his home ravaged. He is rescued by a powerful duke and sent to school. It is important to note the "d'" in his name, setting him apart as a noble, which will be important throughout his life--and marks him, inevitably, for death when the Revolution comes.
At school, he makes friends--Emile, Jerome and Charlot--with whom he will remain close despite the different directions their lives take. Jean-Marie saves Charlot's sister, Virginie, from being attacked by a wolf, earning her father's gratitude; when they wed, Jean-Marie receives land, a chateau and a title.
He is now free to pursue his obsession with knowing the taste of everything and becomes an expert cook--as evidenced by his recipes for cat, wolf head, snake, flamingo tongues, tiger, mouse and dog. (Three-snake bouillabaisse is a particular favorite.) He finds beef and lamb bland: "The secret for variety in meat is spicing." His is the avidity of a scientist: he is more interested in taxonomy, in classifying and finding where each animal's taste belongs, than he is in the actual eating--except for Roquefort cheese, which he adores. His gustatory pursuits are equaled by his amatory adventures; lovemaking is essentially another tasting experience for Jean-Marie.
Jean-Marie carries on a correspondence with Voltaire, entertains Ben Franklin and his Creole mistress, writes to the Marquis de Sade, fights in the Corsican War of Independence and--in his crowning achievement--houses a menagerie of animals too old or out of favor to remain at the royal zoo at Versailles. His closest companion is Tigris, a blind tiger he rescued who accompanies him everywhere.
This eccentric, strange man is somehow elusive, despite all we learn about him. He is a perfect example of the anything-goes-but-superstition Age of Reason writ large. The last scene is a stunner, foreshadowed but still a surprise.